Ian Forsyth, Health and Safety Executive Director, for WorkSafe Victoria spoke at a breakfast seminar on 7 February 2012. As a report on what WorkSafe has been doing and what they plan to do in 2012, it was reasonable but there were several issues that raised eyebrows or confused some in the audience.
Ian Forsyth spent some time speaking about the importance of workplace bullying, repeatedly stressing that most calls to WorkSafe about bullying do not fit the definition that would allow WorkSafe to act. No mention was made of the divergent views on workplace bullying coming through the public comment phase of the draft national code on workplace bullying over the last few months.
Several times Forsyth stressed that there were other avenues for action or appeal on matters that do not fit the WorkSafe definition, such as the Fair Work Ombudsman and other authorities. This is the reality but the comments provide no real solution to handling the thousands of calls WorkSafe receives on workplace bullying each year. Is WorkSafe proposing an advertising campaign that explains potential options? Is there any move within the Victorian Government to coordinate responses to this, obviously, time-consuming and important social issue? Is the State Government asking the Federal Government for assistance or leadership on the issue?
Business as usual on workplace bullying is insufficient. Where is the innovation?
SafetyAtWorkBlog was surprised that such time was spent on workplace bullying but with no mention of the broader context of psychosocial hazards of stress and mental health. When asked, Ian Forsyth, started talking about the development of the next five-year strategy, mentioned that psychosocial hazards are a substantial challenge, said that WorkSafe is aware of the complexities and admitted, amazingly, that WorkSafe has “been more reactive than proactive” on mental health and stress.
Ian admitted that his answer was “fudgy” but it was more than that, it did not acknowledge that WorkSafe Victoria released one of the first Australian stress-related guidances in April 2007 – “Stresswise- Preventing Work-related stress, A guide for employers in the public sector“. He failed to mention that WorkSafe is one of those providing funding to the Institute for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research (ISCRR), and is a participant in ISCRR’s Research Strategy 2015, launched in August 2011, or that work has been occurring between WorkSafe and BeyondBlue on depression and anxiety in the return-to-work area. An earlier incarnation of WorkSafe was well aware of the ACTU’s 2003 Stress at Work guide that developed out of the 1997 trade union survey.
Ian Forsyth’s comments may have been ill-informed but the confused ending to his presentation, and his statement on being reactive, did not go down well with the large audience of OHS professionals.
At the front of mind of all occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals in Australia at the moment is the harmonisation of OHS laws. The introduction of these laws in Victoria has been postponed pending a review of the economic impacts of the laws being undertaken by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Forsyth reiterated many of the public and media statements over the last few months. He repeatedly stated the fact that the economic impact information for Victoria provided by Safe Work Australia fell “well short of expectations”.
He described what this means for Victorian workplaces:
“It means that any changes to Victoria’s OHS laws that take place will be based on the outcome of that supplementary assessment now being undertaken. It has been described in some quarters as being a twelve month delay of national reform, so will national reform be adopted or will it not be adopted? Twelve months will tell the story.
I’m not reading it that way. My reading of it is that the government is undertaking a regulatory impact statement to understand the impacts of reforms, and it could be reforms as a total package, or it could be splitting up that package. I wouldn’t assume its either nothing or complete adoption of model laws. The purpose of that regulatory impact statement is to look at what the impacts of specific things are and you may find that we’re in a position where there could be a selection of those reforms that might come into Victoria. [emphasis added]
Now, again, I’ve got to be careful. I am not saying that is what’s going to happen but just don’t assume that there is a twelve month delay and then we’ll see the whole package implemented in Victoria.”
These comments have generated some discussions in legal and OHS areas, Some have taken Forsyth’s comments as an indication that the Victorian Government will follow the New South Wales path by accepting most of the model laws but will retain, or introduce, some business-friendly elements. Others took the comments as WorkSafe being as much in the dark as anyone else.
What is clear is that the comments did little to reassure Victorian businesses, or the OHS profession, that the OHS law reform strategy in this State will ease the burden of compliance for companies operating across Australia.