Australian research on OHS harmonisation’s progress, success and errors

The harmonisation of Australia’s occupational health and safety (OHS) laws has stagnated since the West Australian government’s tepid response to the strategy and Victoria’s belligerent and ill-founded rejection.  But some continue to examine the harmonisation process.  Eric Windholz is one of those researchers.

Windholz is a former executive of Victoria’s WorkSafe and is now  with the Monash Centre or Regulatory Studies and is writing his thesis on OHS harmonisation (to be available soon through the Monash Library).  Windholz acknowledges the political context of harmonisation, a context he describes as “contentious”.

The political maneuvering of various stakeholders in the harmonisation process deserves additional study.  The harmonisation, or even national uniformity, of safety has occurred over a similar period in Australia with other industry sectors, most noticeably in rail.  It is a strategy that was started by the conservative government of John Howard, embraced by the Australian Labor Party through its various prime ministerial incarnations and is now stagnant or even ignored.

Windholz and Graeme Hodge in their paper “The Magic of Harmonisation: A Case Study of Occupational Health and Safety in Australia” (abstract only) suggest that harmonisation can be “seductive” and should be approached with scepticism.  They suggest that harmonisation of OHS seems to have promised too much to too many stakeholders who put too much faith in its seductive benefits.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has reported on these arguments frequently over the last few years.  Windholz and Hodge write that

“While harmonisation operated to obscure the differences that existed between different groups, eventually those differences materialised, although not until such time that opting out had become politically difficult and some practical reform almost inevitable….”

The harmonisation of OHS laws throughout Australia has failed to meet the anticipated potential at its launch and that identified by the Productivity Commission in the mid-2000s.  Yet at the beginning, many were warning about excessive expectations by stressing that harmonisation was not uniformity.  Too many saw the opening of discussion on OHS as an opportunity to push for uniformity even though that strategy was tried and abandoned in the early 1990s.  Richard Johnstone writes about this period well in his article Harmonising Occupational Health and Safety Regulation in Australia: the First Report of the National OHS Review and points out that the uniformity strategy was abandoned when Prime Minister John Howard gained power in 1996.  (Indeed it is a curious top-and-tail to the Howard period that there was such a gap between dumping OHS uniformity in 1996 and starting OHS harmonisation in 2006.)

In 2011 Windholz wrote about “The evolution of Australia’s harmonised OHS laws: Questions for today and tomorrow” (abstract only)  He asks various questions such as

“Who are the winners and losers? Who should be the winners and losers?”

“What are the benefits and costs of harmonisation? What is being gained? What is being traded away?”

These and other questions should perhaps be re-asked now that the Work Health and Safety laws exist in most Australian States.  Perhaps the upcoming Safe Work Australia Week is the time for such questions.

Continuous Regulatory Improvement

One of Windholz’s questions of particular note was “How are we going to ensure the law continues to evolve the challenges of tomorrow?” – the challenge of continuous regulatory improvement.  Windholz says:

“… the model laws will need to rely for their currency and dynamism on the collective efforts of the health and safety community which includes not only the traditional tri-partite parties of government (regulators), unions and employers, but also the academic community and health and safety professionals within which there is a vast wealth of knowledge and experience.”

To now, there is little sign of such a collective effort.  Unions and employers are settling into a return to the conservatism of the Howard years.  The OHS academic community seems to be shrinking as universities seek more lucrative courses.  The OHS professional associations seem to have diminished after years of infighting and the erosion of their traditional funding models of conferences and sponsorship.  This leaves the OHS individuals to “stir the pot” and keep the debate alive.  This seemingly fractured profession of individuals looks like it is gaining strength particularly through the opportunities provided by social media with one LinkedIn group centred on OHS having achieved double the membership of the 60-year-old Safety Institute of Australia in less than two years.

Windholz’s thesis is eagerly anticipated.  The “Harmonisation of Social Regulation in the Australian Federation” is likely to illuminate issues of Federalism that emerged early in the harmonisation debate but it may also generate analysis of the mistakes made by many who hoped for a more manageable safety regulatory system.  The next stage of any research should surely be to find if the arduous task of harmonisation has provided any benefit to workers through preventing harm.

Kevin Jones

Categories economics, evidence, government, law, OHS, productivity, research, safety, SafeWork, state of knowledge, Uncategorized, WorkSafe

3 thoughts on “Australian research on OHS harmonisation’s progress, success and errors”

  1. Good morning Kevin;
    I suppose there\’s two aspects to this post. Firstly the the ease with which we can get on and off the harmonisation bandwagon. Secondly the breakdown of association across the safety industry.

    My initial view when harmonisation was mooted and started rolling in was \”big deal\”. I still stick to that view point, not because the change isn\’t significant, but it doesn\’t immediately alter my work or the requirements of my clients. In most cases the changes are of a relatively minor administrative nature.

    I\’ve referred to this in other posts as our version of the Y2K bug. Many consultants and regulators received and expended enormous resources promoting the change to legislation (whilst it was still in the proposal stage) resulting in a great deal of panic amongst small and medium enterprises as they waited for the safety sky to fall in. In hindsight the vast majority have carried on essentially as before.

    More disturbingly is that whilst so much promotion went into harmonisation during the development stage, there has been \’bugger all\’ during the implementation stage. At this point I feel our regulators have lost the political impetus and stepped off the bandwagon.

    Tackling the second aspect, we have seen a considerable breakdown in association across the profession. For various reasons, I suspect predominantly internal, the SIA resembles a crusty old aristocrat, comfortable in his smokers jacket, perched in his favourite corner of the gentlemen\’s club. Occasionally we will hear a wistful rumination, top up his G&T and gladly move on to the opposite side of the room. That leaves IFAP, a commercial entity with its own commercial imperatives and SISWA struggling to get a website in motion much less an association.

    The new age is social media. We have our blogs, FB, Twitter, Linked In etc. They give us an avenue to communicate, but by design allows us to sample the dishes without partaking in the meal. To compare LinkedIn forums to an association is quite inappropriate. There is no common goal with a forum nor an ability to represent members.

    It has been unfortunate to see the SIA slip into redundancy over the last decade, it would have been far easier to accept if it was due to competition rather than self immolation. I remember when I first joined and was able to put the letters MSIA after my name I was quite thrilled. Now I see an FSIA after a person\’s name and feel a slight aversion.

    I wish I had the answers in my ramblings. Perhaps the rush to introduce exclusivity in associations as a means of developing respectability has diminished the intent of the association.

    1. Mark, the comparison of SIA to Linkedin was clearly to indicate the communication spread of social media and its potential for discussion over traditional methods.

      Windholz\’s contributions to understanding harmonisation are the best independent information I have seen produced during the implementation phase.

      I suspect that a major lesson will be the need to develop new methods of communication and engagement in policy development and regulatory reform. Do we need to continue to have physical hearings? Is the submission process still valid? Could the background data be reinterpreted and distributed in a different manner? Could the regulator or inquiry establish a Wiki? Should the tri-partite structure be abandoned for consultations? Should research grants be offered to individuals to assist them in preparing a submission so that the well-resourced bodies don\’t get a greater level of influence, a greater \”say\”? How can we encourage independent economists to join the discussion, as monetary evidence, other than workers compensation, was almost absent from the harmonisation discussion?

      OHS harmonisation may be a stagnant process but progress is possible by analysing this consultative process to provide a more valid and representational input in the next inquiry. From memory the harmonisation process requires a review within a couple of years of the work health and safety laws being passed, so the next consultative phase is not far away.

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