Australia’s mining sector progresses safety but without effective accountability

In 2010 the New South Wales Mines Safety Advisory Council (MSAC) released its important Digging Deeper report, proving this industry sector is at the forefront of safety management innovation in Australia.  This month  MSAC provided an insight into “world-leading” safety with its report “Actions for World-leading Work Health and Safety to 2017“.

The report discusses five strategic areas for attention but of more interest is the elements that MSAC believes represents “world-leading WHS”:

The elements in the diagram include, in no particular order:

  • Zero Harm
  • Authentic WHS Commitment
  • Competence
  • Genuine Consultation
  • Production with Safety
  • Fair & Just Implementation
  • Effective, Fair Enforcement
  • Clear Accountabilities
  • Stakeholders share problems and collaborate
  • Systems & Practice connect.

Most of these should not be new to WHS professionals but there are several words that immediately generate attention – the adjective and qualifications to rudimentary safety elements or regulatory requirements.

“Authentic WHS Commitment” for instance illustrates that there is commitment and then there is commitment.  Commitment on workplace health and safety should never need the additional descriptor of “authentic” and clearly implies that past commitment has been half-hearted or lip-service.  This implication is not directed at the mining industry but says that corporate commitments to WHS in the past have been less than solid.  Companies who express commitment need to note that the quality of that commitment, the support and follow-through on promised actions or policies, is being assessed and, in some circumstances, has been wanting.

“Genuine Consultation”shows that the consultative requirements of OHS and labour laws have been circumvented.  Those WHS regulators who have pushed for increased and improved WHS consultation need to acknowledge that trying to establish equitable dialogue on safety through various layers of the organisational structure has not been achieved.

This is a substantial observation in relation to the reliance on new WHS laws in Australia.  These laws have been largely based on the Victorian OHS statutes that require consultation but if, over the last few years, consultation has been ineffective, will the misinterpretation or misapplication of consultation be repeated in the new laws?

Of course the phrase may relate specifically to the previous NSW OHS laws as the report is from New South Wales but even there in 2010 consultation was a strong expectation of WorkCover.

“Production with Safety” indicates that production and safety are still seen as competing corporate priorities.  This perception is a nonsense but at nonsense that is seen as a common sense by many.  It is a shortsighted (mis)understanding of business costs, business risks and legislative WHS obligations.   Workplace incidents often cause businesses, particularly small businesses to fail, because the cost of incidents is so high.  This is part of the misunderstanding of the safety role in business as there is plenty of evidence that good management of safety cuts costs and risk.

The  report also emphasises the need for fairness and justice in both the implementation and the enforcement of safety.  The increasing emphasis on justice or a “just culture” is intriguing and implementing such a concept could have major positive repercussions for business but, at the moment, the concept remains too institutionally threatening to be little more than an academic concept.

The concepts in the wheel of the diagram are not new and are not “world-leading”.  They are simply the core elements of operating any business safely but this wheel from MSAC progresses workplace health and safety in Australia by acknowledging previous safety management concepts that have failed to live up to expectations or are still contested by the business culture.  The report’s conclusion illustrates the weaknesses in the wheel:

“Stakeholders will need to recognise the need for work health and safety improvement in priority areas and commit to active participation in improvement strategies”.

Some would argue that sustainable safety changes usually result from workplace fatalities and serious injuries.  The lack of fatalities can lull businesses, and workers, into a false sense of managerial security.  The MSAC report is important but is likely to be ineffective in itself.  Industries outside of mining will pay the report little attention.  Organisations will struggle to “recognise the need” without the reality of failure.

The report is also thin on identifying why anyone should “commit to active participation in improvement strategies”.  It says that MSAC will monitor and report progress in the five strategic areas to the Minister and others but what if the industry stakeholders fail to achieve the strategy or to live up to the “vision”?

This report has great potential to generate positive change but it could also be an echo of the self-regulatory strategies that industry associations pedalled for several decades.  These strategies are rarely supported by sanctions or penalties and as such have been seen as marketing exercises in the  past.  The MSAC report could be different but even the most effective “positive duty” remains built with the reality of penalties.  This is true for this strategy as much as it is for Australia’s National OHS Strategy. Advocacy without penalty is simply marketing.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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