Recently WorkSafeWA released its annual workplace safety performance data. One of the most dramatic findings of the report was that
“Work fatalities average one death every 21 days…”
UnionsWA has used this finding to criticise the West Australian government for not signing up to the model Work Health and Safety laws. There is a logic jump that needs serious questioning.
The media release (not yet available online) states that:
“… the WA Government has refused to sign-up to national health and safety to make the system clearer and simpler for everyone.
“It has insisted on keeping weaker penalties for employers who fail to maintain safe workplace, has poorer protections for whistle-blowers and wants to make it harder to prosecute breaches of work safety laws.
“In 2012 the Barnett Government consulted around its proposed weaker safety laws.
“There has been no outcome from those consultations, no policy announcement, no legislation.
“With that record, and in the face of this latest crisis of serious work injuries, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Barnett Government simply doesn’t rate work safety as a priority.”
As with most media statements it is essential to read the source document to see if the claims are substantiated. It is true that work fatalities average one death every 21 days but there has been a recent improvement, a variation acknowledged by UnionsWA but rarely mentioned or downplayed in media reports. The report notes that the fatality data is based on the most recent five-year data. By looking further back the perspective is that the fatality rate remains unacceptably high but that improvements in the rate have been occurring.
The WorkSafeWA key findings include other important data, such as:
“Around two workers are injured every hour seriously enough to take one or more days/shifts off work.”
Given that thousands more people are injured at work than die at work, it could be argued that these injuries have a greater or broader social impact than fatalities, although workplace deaths are likely to have a greater social intensity.
The longer term data for workplace injuries shows a decline in the Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate (LTIFR) over time. The 9.23 LTIFR for 2011-12 is a slight improvement on the previous year but represents an almost 11% improvement over the previous five years and a 73.8% increase since the most recent OHS laws were introduced in 1998/89.
UnionsWA’s criticism of the conservative Barnett Government stance towards WHS laws is harsh when one looks at the improvement over time of injury rates and the implication that the WHS laws will have an effect on fatalities and injury rates is unproven and dubious.
The problems and deficiencies identified by the unions imply that by introducing improvements in certain areas, workplace can be made safer. It infers that stronger penalties will cause employers to make workplaces safer. Maybe, but penalties result from prosecutions and prosecutions are conducted by well-resourced OHS regulators who have the will to prosecute. There are many steps between an OHS breach and a penalty. The model WHS laws do nothing to remove these steps.
The unions believe that whistleblowing on OHS matters needs to be made easier through legislation. The laws could achieve this but it takes a brave (of foolish, depending on one’s perspective) person to report OHS breaches in a workplace that sees such actions as traitorous or where such actions will result in the whistleblower’s dismissal. Changing the laws does not make the act any easier. A better strategy would be to educate companies on the economic benefits of changing their workplace cultures to one that embraces OHS principles instead of denying them. A change in law, alone, is unlikely to achieve the organisational change required.
Then unions also say that the new laws will make it easier to prosecute for OHS breaches. Perhaps, but only if the laws allow for organisations other than the OHS regulators to undertake such prosecutions. Such a process existed in New South Wales under the previous OHS laws to questionable effect. There were a couple of successful prosecutions but the result was also an intensification of conflict between unions and employers that has only recently settled, but will never go away. And, of course, there remains a question over whether prosecutions generate safer workplaces or simply penalise the perpetrator.
UnionsWA may be right in stating that
“… the Barnett Government simply doesn’t rate work safety as a priority.”
But introducing the model Work Health and Safety laws may not improve the safety of workplace in Western Australia. Safer workplaces could be achieved in other non-legislative ways but these options do not appear to be considered due to a fixation on the WHS laws.
Most businesses in Australia are not cross-jurisdictional so will have little direct benefit from harmonised national OHS laws. Perhaps safer workplaces can be created by focusing on the State-based economics, laws and relationships instead of waiting for the pot of gold at the end of the legislative rainbow. Just perhaps it is better the Devil you know.