Lessons for Australia from UK assault on OHS red tape

The chase for government and corporate effectiveness and productivity increases through cutting “red tape” has, historically, had dubious longterm benefits. The attack on the red tape of occupational health and safety (OHS) has been brutal in the United Kingdom and has occurred with an unforgiving, and misguided, tabloid media.  Some in the UK media have been pointing out the government’s strategic folly, the latest is Russell Lynch in the Evening Standard.

On 20 September 2012, Lynch brutally described the UK situation:

“Safer businesses are more productive, not least because of the management time taken up when some poor sod has to be scraped off the floor. And let’s not forget inspections focus on occupational health as well, meaning employees have more chance of working without developing illnesses.”

The sad part of this statement is that productivity advantage of safer businesses has been known by governments for some time but that the wave of red tape attacks was politically stronger.

Some Australian States are on an extreme austerity drive even though the Australian economy is nowhere near as troubled as that of the United Kingdom.  These strategies usually call for across-the-board percentage reductions in costs.  This generality is a major problem as productivity and cost-effectiveness of specific organisations is not considered.  Untargeted cuts penalise the successful and the inefficient – the current experience of the Health and Safety Executive.

OHS regulators can be the victims of their own success as the establishment of, or development of, a public safety culture can become the norm and the “enforcers” of that norm can be seen as superfluous.  WorkSafe Victoria has experienced that, to some degree, with its successful Homecomings advertising strategy.  Successful advertising can imply that that the “job” is done or that OHS is not really relevant, particularly if one works in a, supposedly, low risk workplace.  This is part of the rationale behind the UK Government’s removal of OHS obligations for some workplaces.

Cutting the OHS support and enforcement resources of regulators is silly myopic policy but, in some ways, politically understandable.  What the safety profession needs to ask is how OHS became such a target of ridicule and a policy area of perceived irrelevance?  Clearly the case that OHS increases productivity and product and service quality has not been made strongly enough or loudly enough.  The safety profession must accept some responsibility for this.

Australia’s Productivity Commission identified that poor OHS performance costs the Australian economy billions of dollars – a shocking finding – but, even though this cost is regularly quoted, the reality is expressed incorrectly or in a way that provides no political advantage.  Government and politicians want to know the profit or benefit of a policy not the minimisation of the negative.  For instance, politicians are more receptive to a statement such as “good safety management will increase the corporate bottom line by XX% per annum”.  The Productivity Commission statement links OHS with excessive business costs whereas the hypothetical statement above links safety with profit.  The safety profession and other advocates must translate the negative reality into the positive to increase the reception of a government’s political radar.

Just as important is the timing of this lobbying.  In terms of OHS, the economic and social benefits of safety management need to be constantly mentioned to those who determine policy but increase that emphasis in times of economic uncertainty, and hopefully before those times.  In this way OHS regulators may be buffered from the brutality of austerity measures.

Lynch argues that cutting red tape in OHS increases costs:

“And cutting red tape is easier to say than do. As one management consultant told me, even when you change the rules, guidance still has to be rewritten, staff retrained, auditors kept happy. It creates more work. When the hurricane hits — and it’s always from the top down — workers hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over.”

Australia’s OHS harmonisation strategy had the potential to reduce business costs by reducing the number of regulatory jurisdictions with which business needed to comply.  However, as harmonisation, as it was originally intended, has failed some of the Productivity Commission and Access Economics estimates of cost savings are unlikely to be realised.

Lynch’s comments are refreshing but occur after the fact, after the damage has been done.  The Australian safety profession needs to pay close attention to the UK experience in OHS policy because one day the economic buffer from the resources sector will fade and “fiscal responsibility” will be required.  The safety industry needs to be in a strong position through economic research and ardent political lobbying in order to minimise the harshness of that austerity.

Safe Work Australia may have a ten-year national strategy but that is from within government and is subject to political whim, manipulation and ideological erosion.  The safety profession needs to use that national strategy as the basis for a more robust and accountable strategy founded on independent analysis.  And that strategy is required before the government begins its misinterpretation of the role of OHS in business or else Australian journalists will be writing about Australian OHS policy as Russell Lynch has written of that of the UK.

Kevin Jones

4 thoughts on “Lessons for Australia from UK assault on OHS red tape”

  1. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) administer health and safety in the UK in high risks and large organisations. Local councils via their environmental health officers administer health and safety in low risks workplaces such as shops. Who does what is delineated in legislation and where there is doubt it goes to HSE..

  2. One person\’s good governance is another person\’s red tape.

    I suspect much irritation arises from safety rules and the \”\’ere! You carn\’t do that here!\” mentality. I recall a UK headline where a disabled man drowned in a yard of water in a village pond, watched by the local fire brigade who did nothing to intervene \”due to OHS\”. I hope the story is apocryphal but fear that it might not be. The structural flaw in the UK is that local councils administer OHS.

    The debate would be assisted mightily by everyone agreeing that red tape is a Bad Thing, realising that rules mostly arise from having hazards in direct contact with people, and deciding to prevent the hazards from making contact by elimination, substitution, or fencing off.

    1. I think that we should understand that \”red tape\” is a recent truncation of \”bureaucratic red tape\”. For government to function it needs a bureaucracy but not an excessive bureaucracy. Red tape stems from the unnecessary elements and requirements of bureaucracy.

      Safety compliance and management requires documentation and, often, this is described as red tape because people don\’t want to produce it. There is essential paperwork and there is irrelevant paperwork – red tape is the unnecessary and irrelevant.

      I recollect that the frustration with a bloated bureaucracy was partly expressed by Charles Dickens in Little Dorrrit. If memory serves, there was a Department of Circumlocution. In those days red tape was most likely red ribbon.

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