On 19 May 2012, South Australia’s Parliamentary Committee on Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (OSRC) announced in the Adelaide Advertiser and inquiry into the operations of SafeWorkSA. SafetyAtWorkBlog has been told that the inquiry was self-initiated by the committee as a result of no one particular reason. The Minister for Industrial Relations was apparently unaware of the inquiry and nor was SafeWorkSA.
As the passing of Work Health and Safety laws stall in the Parliament, the politics of safety in South Australia is about to get even messier.
The notification from the OSRC committee lists the inquiry’s terms of reference:
“….inquire into the occupational health and safety responsibilities of SafeWork SA and in particular review:
- the efficiency and effectiveness of SafeWork SA;
- whether the responsibility for all occupational, health and safety issues should remain with SafeWork SA or whether some or all of that responsibility should be transferred to WorkCover;
- any other related matter.”
SafeWorkSA has responded to questions from SafetyAtWorkBlog saying that it is preparing a submission to the inquiry and
“… welcomes the opportunity to highlight the important work we do in administering industrial relations and occupational health, safety and welfare laws on behalf of the State Government.”
SafeWorkSA reminds us that amongst the range of workplace safety, public safety and industrial relations services it provides is:
- “increasing awareness about workplace safety through active engagement with employers and workers
- growing knowledge, understanding and skills with improved education and training
- ensuring compliance and helping industry understand and meet its obligation
- monitoring and assessing safety procedures to encourage and assist with a cycle of continuous improvement.”
The OHS regulator believes that recent national OHS performance data shows that South Australia is
“… the only state to have achieved targeted reductions in injury rates, suggesting that the current model is positively influencing safety culture, behaviours and outcomes in this State.”
SafeWorkSA has to play with a straight bat on such inquiries and allow for its record to speak for itself. However, this is likely to be enormously difficult when the only information available currently are the terms of reference from a newspaper advertisement. SafeWork SA is entitled to ask itself what it has done wrong and what is the basis of any concerns?
It is one thing to not know what specifically generated an inquiry but when one of the terms of reference is to “inquire into…. any other related matter”, such an inquiry can feel like persecution.
- “Was there any particular concern that generated this “self-initiated” inquiry?
- Which committee member proposed the inquiry?
- Will the submissions to the inquiry be publicly accessible?
- Has the committee considered any similarly-themed inquiries into OHS regulators that have occurred, or are occurring, in other State jurisdictions?
- Reviewing “any other related matter” is quite broad. Is there any particular concern that you feel may be covered in this inquiry beyond those mentioned in the terms of reference?
- Do you believe that the new Work Health and Safety laws being introduced in South Australia could potentially complicate your inquiry?”
The Committee Secretary, Rick Crump, has responded to these questions but with responses that provide little illumination beyond committee protocols however Rob Lucas rang SafetyAtWorkBlog early last week. Lucas said that he initiated the inquiry and that he called for this due to increasing criticism of SafeWorkSA and the application of OHS laws by the business community. He stated that he will be keeping an open mind as issues come before the committee but he also stated that some OHS enforcement action has seemed to be “over the top” and that OHS needs to be brought to a sensible level.
Lucas specifically referenced the actions of Peter Hurley as indicative of business concerns with OHS. SafetyAtWorkBlog reported on Hurley’s actions in December 2011 when Hurley showed a complete ignorance of occupational health and safety principles. SafeWorkSA also responded to Hurley’s theatrics in that blog article.
Rob Lucas has a history of believing dubious OHS criticisms – housing affordability being the silliest. However, he is dissatisfied even when the South Australian government provides him with robust costings on OHS impacts on South Australian businesses – an expensive exercise that he called for in November 2011. Strong liberal ideologies are driving the actions and statements of Rob Lucas and even though Lucas told SafetyAtWorkBlog that he is looking for a sensible level of OHS (echoes of the common sense criticisms of UK Prime Minister David Cameron) he seems not able to accept independent evidence that others see as sensible. Rob Lucas’ Hansard statements on the SA WHS Bill are available on his website.
South Australia’s Industrial Relations Minister, Russell Wortley provided these comments to SafetyAtWorkBlog on the issues:
“Since its establishment, SafeWork SA has presided over a 38% reduction in workplace injuries in this State. This reduction is greater than in other jurisdiction in the country.
“Through hard work, strategic planning and innovation, it strives to further reduce work-related injury and illness in South Australia. I am confident that any investigation into SafeWork SA’s performance and operations would confirm that they are the leading work health and safety authority in the country.
“The Parliamentary Committee on Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation has recently launched an inquiry into SafeWork SA. I understand this inquiry was instigated by the Liberals’ Rob Lucas and as far as I’m aware he has not declared his reasoning and motivations for establishing it. His decision to establish this inquiry is puzzling given SafeWork SA’s exemplary performance since it was established.
“I sincerely hope Mr Lucas does not intend to use this inquiry for political ends, as workers’ health and safety should always remain above politics.
“There is however always room for improvement when it comes to workplace safety and that is why this Government is supporting nationally harmonised legislation that will assist SafeWork SA in further reducing illness, injury and death at work. If Mr Lucas genuinely wants to improve the health and safety of South Australian workers he should desist with his baseless opposition to the work health and safety legislation, currently before the parliament.
“This important legislation has been either committed to or implemented by most Australian governments, including the NSW and WA Liberal governments.”
The political party membership of the OSCR committee members is of some significance in this inquiry given that the passing of the new Work Health and Safety laws (a federal Labor Party objective) through the South Australian Parliament is apparently being stalled by the dithering of Independent MP, John Darley.
|Hon Steph Key MP, Presiding Member||Australian Labor Party|
|Hon John Darley MLC||Independent|
|Hon John Gazzola MLC||Australian Labor Party|
|Hon Rob Lucas MLC||Liberal Party|
|Mr Alan Sibbons MP||Australian Labor Party|
|Mr Ivan Venning MP||Liberal Party|
It may also be relevant to note that SafeWorkSA successfully prosecuted John Darley’s brother, Warren Darley, in 2007 after two women, one was a nun, suffered broken bones and muscle damage when an elevator they were in fell. Warren Darley was the responsible officer of the company that installed the lift, Jemal Group. Jemal was fined A$7,500 and Darley was personally fined A$7,500 over the incident with over $A13,000 to be paid in compensation. The judgement in this case is available at Asker v Jemal Group Pty Ltd and Warren James Darley  SAIRC 68 (26 October 2007). Although Jemal Group had ceased trading by the time of the court case, Warren Darley pledged to pay any fine, even though he had retired.
Change in occupational safety and health has rarely been so politically charged. It may be that the desperation from an almost hung parliament in Canberra is infecting State politics. The Australian Labor Party is seen as fragile, nationally, and State Liberal Party politicians seem to be taking advantage of this situation just as the Liberals national leader, Tony Abbott, is doing. Some of this argy-bargy was seen at the recent meeting of the Council of Australian Governments but the animosity between political opponents seems even more raw at State level. And the welfare of workers, the harmonisation of OHS laws and potential business cost savings are caught in the middle.