CEO survey shows odd attitude to OHS

Cover of AiGroup CEO Survey 2014One has to be very careful with surveys, particularly those involving business confidence or surveys of an organisation’s membership base.  These are often surveys of perception which may not correlate with reality and can be used as an excuse to lobby government or set an agenda rather than determining a societal truth.  A recent example of this type of survey seems to have been produced by the Australian Industry Group entitled “Burden of Government Regulation“.  The AIGroup’s media release accompanying the report states that

“Over 83% of employers surveyed listed regulation related to industrial relations and occupational health and safety as a significant regulatory burden in 2014.”

One of the major problems with this statement and similar ones throughout the report is the lumping together of industrial relations (IR) and occupational health and safety (OHS).  CEOs may perceive these issues as sufficiently compatible to be inseparable but OHS and IR issues are managed in different ways, are regulated by different government agencies and operate from different moral bases.  The problem is exacerbated when reading the report itself because the 83% figure also includes workers compensation and employment costs (page 6), elements not mentioned in the media release.

The exact quote from the report, below, also splits what is described as a “significant regulatory burden” into the actual survey responses of High and Medium.

“The areas of industrial relations, employment, workcover and OH&S are expected to place the largest burden on businesses in 2014, with 83% of CEOs stating the associated regulatory cost burden in these areas is medium or high.”

Comparing like with like would show that the high IR/OHS concern in the survey is the same level of concern as that for “payroll tax and other state taxes”.

As with all surveys it is important to look at the sample.  Thankfully AiGroup has provided some basic information in the report’s appendix.  44% of respondents (106) were from Victoria, a state that is often referred to as having the highest level of industrial disputation.   The other East Coast States make up the top three group of respondents which, when collated, accounts for 87.2% of respondents.  Such an East Coast “bias” is not mentioned in the report or the media release.

The AiGroup’s report identified OHS harmonisation as a policy priority:

“Reducing duplication and improving harmonisation in OH&S laws has been demanded by Australian business for many years, and it is still outstanding.” (page 8)

However it is unclear whether the AiGroup is actively lobbying the Victorian and West Australian governments, who are blocking harmonisation, to introduce the harmonised Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws.  On page 10 in relation to the construction industry, the AiGroup says that the delay on harmonisation

“….adds complexity for construction businesses, especially when they operate across jurisdictions or move work locations for new projects.”

Both States have Liberal governments which are traditionally sympathetic to business interests and are keen on the reduction of red tape, of which OHS is often seen as a major component.  One would think lobbying on harmonisation would be easier at the moment.

In the chapter specifically addressing IR and OHS, the report lists only one out of five examples of regulatory burden that relate directly to OHS, and that is concern over WHS harmonisation.

“With regard to workplace relations, some of the key concerns in this area of regulation appear to have intensified in 2014, particularly following amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 in 2012 that introduced another 50 pages of new legislation. In particular, businesses noted a significant increase in the regulatory burden from complying with:

  • union right of entry to workplaces;
  • employees’ claims of unfair dismissal;
  • restrictions on flexible work arrangements;
  • inconsistent regulation of employee compensation such as long service leave; and
  • various OH&S regulations across states and territories.” (page 20)

This illustrates the need to isolate OHS from industrial relations in future surveys as OHS is being criticised unfairly by association.  Clearly the concern over a regulatory increase is not from OHS but from the changes to the Fair Work Act and regardless of recent moves on workplace bullying, the Fair Work Commission does not regulate workplace safety and does not provide any resources for reducing the level of potential harm from work activities.

It may be that OHS is used as an excuse by trade unions to gain entry to workplaces but this remains an industrial relations concern regardless of the safety issues that the union representatives may have found.

Page 23 of the report states:

“Ai Group research indicates that by far the biggest concern with regard to regulatory burdens on business is the compliance costs associated with various OH&S rules across all industry sectors.”

There is no evidence in the survey report to support this statement as there is no data separation between OHS and IR.  If the research referred to is outside of this report, the reference is not provided although the report is littered with footnotes.

The report says that

“….most  businesses agree with the principles of the OH&S laws…” (page 23).

It would be interesting to identify which businesses or sectors do not agree with the OHS principles which have been legislative requirements for many years.

The AiGroup report also seems to gives OHS consultation a kicking:

“Applying ‘risk assessment’ principles is also a major area of concern with OH&S regulations, as ongoing communication involving a large number of employees tends to consume significant amounts of non-productive time with little practical value, especially when proper safety processes and checks are already in place.” (page 23)

The application of risk assessment principles came primarily as a result of lobbying by the business sector in the 1980s when business complained that OHS laws were too prescriptive.  OHS laws have changed considerably since then to allow businesses to self-regulate and to determine their own level of compliance with safety laws.  The flexibility provided has increased substantially to result in the ultimate flexibility offered by reasonable practicability.

It can be argued that Australian businesses have never been in more control of managing their own workplace safety yet this CEO survey sees consultation on OHS matters, a legislative requirement, as consuming “non-productive time with little practical value”!!

The current OHS trend is to look to corporate senior executives and CEOs for safety leadership but this survey seems to show a serious misunderstanding of the meaning of OHS and how workplace safety is managed.  The clearest OHS concern in the entire report seems to be about complying with “various OH&S regulations across states and territories”.  The AiGroup is not helping the aims of the Australian OHS profession or the safety regulators by splicing CEO concerns over industrial relations issues, such as right of entry, with laws and a profession that operate to keep workers safe and alive.   The blending of OHS and IR in the report and media release is a worrying misrepresentation of OHS.

Kevin Jones

Categories business, economics, executives, industrial relations, law, Leadership, OHS, politics, productivity, safety, statistics, Uncategorized

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