Safety profession needs to counter the influence of the red tape ideologues

Australia’s safety profession has a considerable challenge over the next few years, one for which it seems to be poorly prepared.  The challenge comes not from new occupational health and safety (OHS) laws or new hazards but from entrenched ideologies.  As the country moves to an increasing political conservatism, safety needs to prove it is as important as other issues, such as productivity and job creation,  by vying for political and corporate attention.

The challenge  is that the Australian conservative political parties are ideologically opposed to almost ANY laws that could possibly impede economic growth and they believe that occupational health and safety laws impede growth by disrupting work and adding unnecessary operational costs.  This is not the reality but the ideology is so ingrained into conservative politics that the safety profession will gain very little traction in the next few years without a strategy to contest this ideological fantasy.

The conservative Liberal Government in Victoria forestalled introduction of the model Work Health and Safety laws to undertake an assessment of the economic impacts of the laws on the State’s businesses, despite an assessment having already occurred through the regulatory impact process.  The review had a tenuous justification but served the political purpose of distancing the conservative politicians in Victoria from the Labor Party that is in power federally.  The review also plays to its traditional business sector supporters indicating that the Liberal Party takes potential regulatory impositions seriously.  It is believed the report of the review undertaken by PriceWaterhouseCoopers is now with the Victorian Government for its consideration.

The report by Access Economics, mentioned above reports:

“WorkSafe Victoria believe the changes proposed will decrease the regulatory burden for a majority of large businesses. Small businesses with interstate operations are expected to also benefit, including a likely reduction in red tape costs.” (page 39)

The size of the challenge is likely to be illustrated by the next ten-year National OHS Strategy soon to be issued by Safe Work Australia.  Where companies are committing to measurable safety objectives but rarely delivering, the new National Strategy is likely to follow its predecessor into aspirational statements of non-achievement.

The Safety Institute of Australia (SIA), like many professional bodies, is more comfortable with a support base from large corporations and those businesses that can afford the professional services of the SIA’s members.  But what happens when that support base is increasingly questioning the need for those professional services?  Or when government is portraying the activities of one’s members as simply generating red tape?  (Philosopher Alain de Botton recently said on Twitter that red tape is “a euphemism for irritating obstruction to my ambitions for more money.”)

The safety profession needs to produce authoritative and indisputable evidence that it provides more overall benefits than costs to business

Earlier this week, Dr Geoff Dell presented a graph that shows a direct relationship between a company’s share price and the quality of its safety management system.  Those companies with a high share value also have a positive safety performance.  However this data ended in the early 2000s.  The world has encountered a broad economic collapse since then and yet no data for that period is publicly available (whether this OHS Accumulation Index research is continuing is unknown).  It is interesting to consider a possible third line on that graph – the relationship between economic performance and expenditure on professional safety services.  It is likely that economic downturn results in big budget cuts in safety expenditure.

The comparative data has been around for many years and is the best that the safety profession has been able to achieve in trying to show that safety is profitable and not just a cost.  The morality of safety management is indisputable (as illustrated by WorkSafe Victoria’s “Homecoming” advertisements) but arguing for the benefits of safety on other criteria, criteria that business accepts and understands, is proving elusive.  Safety is seen as a nice-to-have and not as an essential business element unless it is a requirement of a commercial contract an, even then, the safety budget is likely to be minimal.

The corporate wellness sector has started to provide data on its very good return-on-investment but corporate wellbeing remains a corporate optional extra, just like OHS, and not an essential element that all businesses require to operate. While the safety profession is promoting values-based safety, what is really needed is a business-based safety – an economic argument that occupational health and safety is profitable.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

7 thoughts on “Safety profession needs to counter the influence of the red tape ideologues”

  1. Col, I attended an ISSA conference some years ago and was very impressed. It showed me the social cost of safety in both Westernised and developing nations.

    What I am looking for, and hope to get from the upcoming Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne, is for a safety organisation, or other lobbying body, to take the evidence you provide, and that is available elsewhere, and challenge each mention of OHS red tape by Government and the business lobbyists.

    If the Safety Institute of Australia or the National Safety Council of Australia or Safety In Workplaces Australia aren’t prepared to fight for OHS and the flow-on member benefits, we should be asking why do they exist? If they are there simply to provide services for their members, that’s okay, but it leaves an opportunity for an independent and authoritative OHS voice.

  2. There’s a number crunching report on the way from the International Social Security Association (ISSA). They are a European group, linked to the insurance industry that has been around since 1927. Amongst other things they are the co-sponsors of the ISSA/ILO World Safety and Health Congress, a pretty flash international OHS conference.

    Quoting from the ISSA web site: “In 2010, the…ISSA, the German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV), and the German Social Accident Insurance Institution for the Energy, Textile, Electrical and Media Products Sectors (BG ETEM) initiated an international study on “Calculating the international return on prevention for companies: Costs and benefits of investments in occupational safety and health” “. Last year they presented the summary results from the study at the XIX World Safety and Health Congress (in Turkey).

    The big number in that summary indicates that the return on OHS investment runs at a pretty serviceable 1:2.2 ratio. Yep, they have all the expected “qualifications” about the preliminary report findings, but the ratio seems about right to me: one buck on OHS delivers $2.20 in efficiency gains.

    For mine, the bonuses of good OHS has stuck out like dog’s balls for years. But the facts seem to be that OHS-World got locked into a tech-head, ethics orientation to ostensibly “sell” itself (it probably wasn’t possible for it to go any other way); but here we are 40 or so years down the track from Robens and the hard-core bottom line is being looked at. Oh well, better late than never.

    I’ve included a link to the ISSA summary report and the ISSA has said that the full report is expected to be ready in about June this year.

  3. Further to my above comments, the document at following link may be useful while talking about business case for safety management. A borrowed quotation from the introduction chapter is,
    ‘If you think safety is expensive, try an accident…’ is a familiar adage in the process industries.’

  4. Those who oppose OHS should visit history of the movement for factory legislations. These legislations did not come overnight but were evolved over decades. Each of the clause represents suffering of many workmen somewhere, sometime earlier. These rules and regulations are nothing but lessons learnt from past accidents. Only very few of the existing regulations resulted from forethought.
    Those who forget the past are bound to suffer later. Economic growth will be a reality only when safety of the workforce is ensured. Otherwise, someday organization(s) face closure and today’s opponents of introduction of legislation for better workplace will become proponents later for the same.

  5. Your argument is flawed. The RIS report you refer to is only for the WHS Act, which was written in 2009. At that time, we could only suspect, but not know about the abomination that WorkSafe would creeate with the regulations.

    The root of the fallacy is that you appear to lump the WHS Act and the Regulations together under the generic label of the “legislation”.

    As far as I can tell, Victoria was OK with the Act at the time, as was I. Although for me, being a cynic and all, lumping “registration” process under the heading of “authorisations” together with “licencing” gave me concern that some in government were quietly creating with the Act a capability to bring back good ole fashioned “approvals” under the Regs that were yet to be revealed. As it turned out, that is exactly what happened.

    What Victoria has a problem with as far as i can tell is the Regulations. And that is a different RIS, which is frankly, pretty poor. The Vic’s should know the problems because they wrote the regs that the WHS regs were supposedly intended to be based on.

    You need to get the RIS details straight.

    1. Martin, thanks for challenging me.

      I have re-read the WorkCover Minister’s media release and Gordon Rich-Phillips talks generally about the potential economic impact of “the laws” until in paragraph 4 he mentions:

      “…the final National Regulatory Impact Statement was released four months behind schedule, and does not quantify the impacts on Victoria as promised…”

      Whether he is referring specifically to the WHS Regulations is open to interpretation.

      The Premier’s recent comments on COAG do not specify Regulations.

      The Regulatory Impact Statement that deals with the WHS Regulations also addresses costs associated with Codes of Practice so often it is unclear what is being referred to. Also Victoria has some cost increases with some processes, such as the re-imposition of risk assessments, but is cost neutral on others.

      Perhaps this clarity of details is what Victoria is seeking in its review but the Government has been very guarded on the terms of reference for the PwC review and so it is difficult to anticipate what the review findings will be.

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