For a little while employers, government and trade unions in Australia were spreading their consultative pool on occupational health and safety (OHS) matters. Recently that triumvirate seems to have returned to a more exclusive structure. The reason is unclear but the situation is a backward step and one that fails to take advantage of the modern consultative technologies.
In some ways OHS in Australia seems to be moribund. Professional associations do not seem to be growing even in a time of regulatory change. Trade union membership numbers seem to have bottomed out without much diminution of their political influence. It may be time to look at a new consultative approach that builds ownership of workplace safety on the back of the awareness marketing by the OHS regulators. However to do so may mean that the tripartite structure be dissolved over time and that the policy development expectations of government on OHS matters be substantially revised.
An example of the move from old to new could be drawn from comparing two OHS consultative models. For over sixty years the Safety Institute of Australia has been claiming to represent the Australian OHS profession. Its membership has been hovering around 4,000 for many years and it continues to have a State-based structure but one that seem increasingly controlled centrally from its Melbourne head office. In February 2011, a Melbourne-based lawyer, Graham Dent, plunged into the harmonisation maelstrom and established a discussion group through LinkedIn. Since that time that group, recently renamed Work Health Safety (OHS) Leadership for All (Australia), has accumulated a membership of 9,842. Which member group better “represents” the OHS profession in Australia?
Many organisations and companies are establishing social media networks but, understandably, these are remaining within the organisation and entry is by employment or membership. Social media allows for consultative mechanisms based on disciplines and interests but without geographic restrictions. OHS is a discipline that lends itself to this mechanism, as Dent’s LinkedIn group shows. IOSH has a terrific discussion forum for members but due to the nature and history of that organisation it remains very UK-based. IOSH has a public discussion forum but the quality of discussion is much less useful, progressive or innovative than the member-based. One could also argue that such a public discussion forum would sit better with an OHS regulator IF that regulator felt it could dispense advice without risking legal action.
Governments and regulators may feel less exposed if they were to supplement their submission processes on specific topics with social media forums. It could take a large number of personnel to moderate or monitor such discussions but the expansion of inquiry submissions beyond the traditional written and the physical public hearings could have enormous benefits. Such expansion would allow for the broadest consultation currently available.
Part of the justification for a social media approach to consultation can be that consultation, particularly on OHS issues, has often been scheduled over the Christmas/New Year period when many industries schedule shutdowns or operate on a skeleton crew, and many workers take extended holidays. The current example of this type of consultation is the Model Health and Safety Management Plan (HSMP) proposed by the Construction Compliance Code Unit of Victoria’s Department of Treasury and Finance. The consultation period is exactly one month in a period of high leave-taking and targeted to an industry sector, Construction, that in this period has only around 12 working days. The scheduling shows a disregard to the importance of consultation and, in some ways, endorses the tripartite model that is being closely guarded by the participants. (Drafts of the model HSMP have existed since very early 2013)
A social media approach to consultation is unlikely to provide much advantage when a government schedules public consultation as the Victoria government has above.
There is also the point that, although smart phones, internet and computers are pervasive in Western society, there remain some industry sectors where workers are less IT-savvy and construction would have to be one of those. Industries with a high precarious workforce, low-income, long hours may also not suit the social media approach and luckily trade union representation can be high in these sectors.
This is why a social media strategy could only be used to supplement other consultative models at the moment. The fact remains that there are many advantages of establishing a social media option now so that over a short period of time, around two years in the case of Graham Dent’s forum, the usefulness of that option will be clear, understood and acceptable. That is IF the tripartite “owners” of OHS consultation allow it.