South Australia’s politicians prepare to grill the OHS regulator, SafeWorkSA

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:

  1. the efficiency and effectiveness of SafeWork SA;
  2. 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;
  3. 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.

SafetyAtWorkBlog asked the following questions of all of the members of the OSRC committee.  John Gazzolo and John Darley have deferred to the Committee Chair, Steph Key, or Secretary.

  • “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 [2007] 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.

Kevin Jones

15 thoughts on “South Australia’s politicians prepare to grill the OHS regulator, SafeWorkSA”

  1. Andrea, I have looked into your comment about injury statistics coming from workers compensation data and have been told that the figures were provided to the Minister by Workcover SA but that the original data was from the 13th Comparative Performance Monitoring report from Safe Work Australia. SafeWork SA WAS a source for the Safe Work Australia data, as was the Workcover Corporation.

    The CPM report (http://tinyurl.com/7fss6k6) states that

    “The reduction in the incidence rate of injury and musculoskeletal claims between the base period (2000–01 to 2002–03) and 2009–10 was 25%, which is below the rate required to meet the 2002–2012 National OHS Strategy target of a 40% improvement by 30 June 2012. South Australia was the only jurisdiction which met the required rate of improvement with 39% improvement.”

    I believe Minister Wortley’s reference in the article above to a 38% injury reduction is valid.

    My brief reading of the report indicates that the data is from workers’ compensation data AS WELL AS the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ employment data.

    The CPM data is intended to focus on reducing the incidence of work-related injury and disease. Appendix 1 of the CPM report explains the variations from, exclusions of and qualifications of the data.

    If you want to continue to discuss this, please contact me outside of this blog.

  2. Let them combine the two entities, it will provide a much larger target for those who really do know how incompetent and immoral the system has become.

    Dave mirrors the cynicism many of us feel about the weak willed political management of this sector of government and I repeat for the “manyth” time, injuries happen in the work place and responsibility for a safe work place is that of the employer.

    If you can’t fix the problem, injury severity and volume will not decrease. The 38% decrease quoted is a nonsense and I would ask Kevin to expose this by asking the Minister to clarify in detail what that figure represents.

    John Darley is the burr under the saddle of this lot and I encourage him to be as probing as possible when questioning inspectorate performance in terms of “unannounced cold calling by inspectors for the purposes ensuring compliance by employers” as one important question. I know the answer and would be happy to talk with John on the matter.

  3. Firstly, Kevin unless things have changed dramatically in the last few years, injury statistics quoted here in SA come from the compensation scheme (as in WorkCover) and not SafeWork SA.

  4. It’s easy to pick on the regulator, I’ve done it myself and living in Adelaide that means it’s been Safework SA. However, they are not solely responsible for the state of safety in SA or any other state or territory. Courts and the legal system play a huge role and severely restrict the ability of any regulator to take pro-active action. Then there’s the political dimension. Under-funded, under resourced the regulators offer salaries that most in the safety world find a joke and while some stay with the regulator because of a deep commitment to improve things there are a number who see it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things or who are comfortable and don’t want to be disturbed too much or whatever – the same as most workplaces when you think of it.

    I don’t think Safework SA is the most pro-active regulator in the country not the most consultative or informative but I’m willing to bet London to a brick that this parliamentary committee will be more about political point scoring than trying to fix up safety in this state.

  5. Kevin, you mentioned that the 38% reduction in injuries was not related to the liability of the workers compensation scheme ——- ????

    Unless injured workers are now suddenly being compensated like royalty (and I suspect that’s not the case) then how is it even possible that the two are not related?

    Workplace Safety and Workers Compensation used to work together and now they speak two different languages?

    1. The Minister’s words do not mention workers compensation:

      “Since its establishment, SafeWork SA has presided over a 38% reduction in workplace injuries in this State.”

      I don’t see a different language and try to focus on the needs of workers but I do see workers compensation as occurring after an incident and OHS as pre-incident. In most States OHS and workers’ compensation are ruled by different legislation and different regulatory bodies. The Federal Government is harmonising OHS laws separate to harmonising compensation laws (if that is still on the agenda) so some difference in language may be understandable.

  6. John Darley is a decent man and one of those rare conscionable politicians – not to mention hard working. Why on earth would it be relevant to note that his brother was once convicted of an OHS offence?

    John Darley and his team have been an immense help to VOID and its members. There is no question in my mind as to the commitment to occupational health and safety. There is no question as to his commitment to the rights and welfare of the South Australian worker full stop. I wish that were true of all who sit in the big house on North Terrace.

    I have been trying to decipher the national harmonisation legislation and how it is worded and I think both sides of contention are less than perfect. The control issues *are* vague! That doens’t make it bad law but it does leave the whole argument open to attack. Frankly I think very little has been done to appease the debate. I thought old style legalese went out of fashion years ago and executives were not to write legislation in such an ambiguous manner anymore. I believe it actually *is* poorly written – even though I also believe we *do* need a broader interpretation as to who has legal responsibility under that legislation.

    On the whole issue on letting SafeWork SA’s record speak for itself, Tony hit that nail well on the head with the irony there.

    There is no question that SafeWork SA has made changes as to how it determines its statistical data. We saw how quietly they moved numbers from fatalities to other jurisdictions around 2007 – which makes not one iota difference as to performance – all that changed was where the number ended up. Mind you, that didn’t stop SafeWork SA from using those numbers to artificially promote a job well done did it?

    There are some really VERY decent people working at SafeWork SA but when it comes to some of the key decision makers behind that organisation that would not know a straight bat if it hit ’em square on the head! Bring on the committee I say.

  7. The figure of 38% injury reduction that Russell Wortley trumpets needs to be further fleshed out, because if that is the case, why is the unfunded liability in the workers compensation scheme escalating at a rapid rate of knots. (38% reduction in paper cuts maybe?)

    The impact of Safework SA on improved safety in the workplace is highly debatable given their lack of presence in the small – medium sector of business. I see performance from both sides of the fence and I can assure you the visibility of Safework SA is akin to a “pea soup fog”.

    The welfare of workers is obviously not a priority . The emphasis on reduction in costs to employers seems to be the focus. Compliance with current legislation doesn’t even get a mention.

    I hope Minister Wortley is prepared to stake his position on the outcome, because I, for one, would not.

    John Darley is a “doer” and if he believes the matter needs a serious investigation, then there is a need to sit up and take notice. John is in a position to cast aside bureaucratic blathering and ask the hard questions. His representations on behalf of injured workers poorly served by the workers compensation system are well known, which gives him a unique insight into the machinations of OHSW in SA.

    1. The 38% reduction in injuries seems unrelated to the liability of the workers compensation scheme. Any correlation between the two would need detailed information on the type of injuries and illnesses reduced and compensated, an analysis that is beyond my resources.

      I don’t think the absence of the OHS regulator in the small to medium business sector in South Australia is unique and, although I am critical of some States’ strategies for this sector, there are some positive initiatives. Whether they are as effective as they should be is another issue.

      My reading of the South Australian OHS climate is that the “welfare of workers” is a priority but I acknowledge your comments, and those of Rosemary, in this blog that the welfare of injured workers needs attention.

      Clearly, I am not as familiar with John Darley’s work as you are but I would have liked a “doer” to respond to a selection of questions from me. Perhaps he will post a comment or clarification.

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