Economic austerity should not be allowed to override safety priorities

iStock_000009374843XSmallIn 2012 many countries have been required to pursue economic austerity measures.  A national or international economy rarely has any direct effect on safety management but the current economic status has led to an increase in harsh, or strong, political decisions and some of these decisions will affect safety management and professionals.  One obvious manifestation of political safety decisions is the UK Government’s decision to allow small businesses to step outside its occupational health and safety (OHS) laws in its pursuit of reducing supposed “red tape“.  This strategy is attractive to other government’s, including Australia’s, but the strategy could marginalise the safety profession even further if the profession remains insular and silent.

The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has been campaigning for some time on the governments decisions to change its OHS laws in its quest for greater efficiencies and reduced business costs.  In the last few months, IOSH has turned its attention to the proposed changes to the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR) whereby the reporting period is extended and various types of incidents will no longer be required to be reported. IOSH’s head of policy and public affairs Richard Jones has said that

“IOSH is extremely worried that the changes will mean certain major injuries, including dislocations and temporary blindness and serious diseases, including occupational cancer and asthma, would no longer be reportable. This gives out entirely the wrong message, and is a retrograde step.” (emphasis added)

Most governments acknowledge that work-related incidents and illnesses are under-reported, to what extent depends largely on one’s politics, so it seems illogical for businesses to provide less information.

According to one article earlier this year

Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, criticised the changes to reporting injuries at work. “There will be 30,000 fewer accidents reported, which is not the same as 30,000 fewer accidents…” (link added)

Similar criticisms have been voiced in Australia about Work Health and Safety legislative reform which originated from similar ideological and political intentions to cut “red-tape”.  This motivation has grated with many safety professionals as improvements in worker safety have always been a secondary consideration to the reform process.

At the same time as the red-tape challenges, there is a parallel debate about the need to increase productivity.  In terms of OHS, red-tape and productivity have yet to be linked by the mainstream press or, sadly, the safety professional magazines, but this is likely to occur in 2013 if the safety profession develops a strategy to get a seat at the corporate leadership/economic/productivity table.  That’s a big IF in Australia, as the safety associations remain focused on a narrow strategy of tertiary education requirements and research lobbying.

IOSH has always had a strong lobbying role even though its level of influence seems to vary in line with ideological reviews of its leadership and changes of governments.  But at least IOSH has a voice and the ear of government and OHS regulators.  This is certainly not the case in Australia.

Australia also lacks an independent “think-tank” that is willing to analyse the economics of workplace safety.  The economic information currently available is too often part of a larger study or produced for marketing purposes or not sufficient broad and robust.  This allows for fads and niche products to establish themselves beyond their legitimate evidence base.  Attempts to establish think-tanks in Australia have been tried but with little sustainability.  The Institute for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research has potential but would benefit from a larger and more varied source of funds.  There are potential models in Canada such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Europe has several safety think-tanks, often funded by the European Union.

Such think-tanks have the skills required for the analysis of economics, skills that are rarely found in workplace safety organisations.  IOSH spends a great deal of time on lobbying locally and, to a lesser extent, internationally but at least it is politically active.  Australia has no safety organisation prepared to do so and the profession is suffering from this lack.  Without political lobbying and a media presence, the safety profession could be seen as being reactive and whingers, rather than the progressive profession it can be.  It is exactly in times of economic pressure that the argument for effective safety strategies needs to be voiced strongly or else OHS will be given a business and economic priority that exposes it to ridicule and irrelevance.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

2 thoughts on “Economic austerity should not be allowed to override safety priorities”

    1. It is rare that I allow comments that so directly refer to other websites, as most of such comments are spam, however, I support Reader\’s reference to RegNet. This site newsletter has been operating for many years and is a must for any Australian safety professional.

      Much of the regulatory news can be found elsewhere but the research news is rarer and more valuable.

      Thanks \”Reader\” for reminding me.

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