The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) advocates for workers’ rights and entitlements with occupational safety being one of those entitlements but sometimes the safety message from ACTU is a little narrow.
On 14 March 2012, the ACTU issued a media release responding to the release of important workplace safety data by Safe Work Australia. The release quotes ACTU President Ged Kearney emphasising very important data:
“This report has found that the cost of each workplace incident is around $99,100 and of this workers pay $73,300, the community $20,800 and employers $5100…”
“We think we are a clever country but it isn’t so smart to forgo almost 5% of our nation’s GDP on the cost of preventable workplace injury and illness…”
But what does the ACTU propose to address this economic cost of poor safety management? The ACTU calls for
- “..all governments … to look closely at these figures when they consider the adequacy of workers’ compensation payments”
- “…encourag[ing] workers to become involved in making their workplace safer by electing health and safety representatives joining their workplace health and safety committee”
- “and by seeking advice from their union.”
All of these suggestions have existed for decades before Safe Work Australia released it 2009-10 economic costs data. It can be argued that new proposals are required.
This is not to say that the existing ACTU strategies have failed. They have not. There is considerable evidence in Australia, Europe and the UK, that people in unionised workforces have less injuries than in non-unionised workplaces. One example of that evidence can be found in the submission 55 to Australia’s national review of OHS laws by Johnstone, Bluff and Quinlan. These researchers undertook a detailed study of research reports into workplace consultation, participation and representation and found
“…joint arrangements and trade union representation at the workplace are associated with better health and safety outcomes than when employers manage OHS without representative worker participation.” (page 27)
Consultation and union representation have generated workplace safety benefits but as the number of unionised workplaces declines and membership declines, or at least plateaus, so does the effectiveness of the ACTU’s recommended actions. New ways of reducing the economic costs of workplace injuries and deaths need to developed at the same time as finding new ways to reduce the number of injuries and deaths.
There is a slim chance that the soon-to-be-released National OHS Strategy being developed by Safe Work Australia will include some innovative mechanisms but the previous strategy had dubious success as the aims of the original strategy became increasingly “aspirational”. (“Aspirational” is similar to “awareness” in that the term does not require any tangible achievement)
Significantly the economic data has been publicly available for several days however, at the time of writing, there has been little or no comment from the usual business and industry associations, and yet there will be no improvement in safety until Australian business acknowledges the reality of data from Safe Work Australia.
The trade union movement may have a three-part strategy as listed above but what strategy will Australian businesses choose? They could say that the cost to business is not worth their attention as a 5% injury cost can be covered as simply a cost of “doing business”. Safe Work Australia’s data showed that most of the cost burden is carried by workers and community so what’s the issue?
Employer groups love big numbers and references to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) so the 5% of GDP should gain some attention particularly as the argument about improving productivity continues. It could be argued that if all businesses understood and complied with OHS laws, as they are already required to, the injury rate would be greatly reduced and the 5% of GDP burden would be much less. Such compliance should not generate additional business costs as OHS compliance has always existed. The only companies that may have additional costs are those that have not already been complying and those “new” costs are simply the reallocation of what they should already have been paying.
Australian business groups could begin developing safety innovations that can be explained to their membership as saving worker lives, increasing productivity and improving the economic health of the nation.
Action on OHS changes may be slight whilst the OHS harmonisation process putters on but the delayed completion of this process is no reason to procrastinate on actions to improve workplace health and safety, particularly if the cost of poor safety management and workplace injuries continues to account for 5% of GDP and around 300 people die each year. But new and innovative thinking is required on workplace safety.