Shorten’s Centre for Workplace Leadership is likely to ignore OHS

For some months Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister  Bill Shorten, has been talking about establishing a Centre for Workplace Leadership. This presents an opportunity for practical progress on OHS but it relies on someone joining the dots of occupational safety, workplace health and productivity – a highly unlikely occurrence.

In December 2012, Shorten started looking for a provider of the Centre, a facility that he described as

“…a flagship initiative of the Gillard Government and will play an important role in supporting our aim to increase workplace level productivity and the quality of jobs by improving leadership capability in Australian workplaces…

He also said that

“This will not be another training company. The Centre will drive a broader movement to provide good leadership which empowers employees and delivers greater job satisfaction, productivity and motivation…

The specifics of the Centre’s work program will be determined largely by the successful proposal, with a focus on promoting and demonstrating innovative leadership, research, training and knowledge sharing.”

Appropriate attention to the management of workplace health and safety in Australia and elsewhere has been established as a strong contributor to productivity.  The Minister’s statements about the breadth of the workplace leadership strategy and the commitment to increasing “workplace level productivity” are causes for cautious optimism.  It may be possible that all of the work and research on the importance of workplace health and safety will gain a national audience or consideration that has been overlooked at State level however this will rely on a suitable proposal to be submitted by 31 January 2013.

Evidence in the Request for Proposal for Centre for Workplace Leadership may deflate the optimism however.

The request states:

“There is a growing body of evidence showing that a variety of workplace level factors are correlated with improved productivity.” (page 2)

There is no mention of safety in the document and the importance of safety must be inferred from the evidence the report quotes. The study by the Society for Knowledge “Economics , Leadership, Culture and Management Practices of High Performing Workplaces in Australia: The High Performing Workplaces Index” makes only one mention of occupational safety and even then it is more in the context of wellbeing that the prevention of physical harm:

“As Iverson and Zatzick (2007) point out, the literature suggests that those practices include job security, equal employment opportunity, workplace health and safety, and support for training access. Arguably, a more current reading would include work/family and other flexible working arrangements that increase employees‘ intention to stay and commitment to the organisation. Trust is highest where employees gain rather than lose through productivity improvements. A virtuous cycle is most likely where job security, desired working hours and real wage levels are least vulnerable to unilateral employer pressure. This appears crucial to employee perceptions of fairness and for their sense of voluntary engagement.” (page 68)

Wellbeing seems important and is a specific element in the High Performing Workplace index (as pictured below) but even that importance is barely mentioned in the report:

“The evidence appears to indicate a strong link between workforce practices (including leadership, culture and management) the wellbeing and fulfilment of people at work, and workplace productivity. This needs not be a trade-off, or win-lose situation where employees lose out, but rather a situation where benefits accrue to employees and employers alike.” (pages 24-25)

Page from future_jobs_forum_steve_vamos[1]As with many government consultation over recent years, the request for submissions occurs over the Christmas/New Year break which substantially reduces the chance of consultation.  It is unknown if any OHS-related associations or organisations in Australia  are even considering making a submission to the Federal Government.  It is unlikely any will, however the case is there to be made and it is a strong case.

Good safety and health management contributes to productivity.  Good safety and health management will reduce business costs.  Good safety and health management will increase the trust that employees have to their employers and, therefore, builds loyalty.  The evidence exists but no OHS organisation in Australia seems willing or able to join the dots and without this effort, this voice, workplace safety again risks being overwhelmed by the industrial relations lobbyists.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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