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.