During April 2019 Executives from Safe Work Australia (SWA) attended the Senate Estimates hearings as usual. This current session was a little different as a General Election was imminent and Industrial Manslaughter laws have increased focus on occupational health and safety (OHS) organisations and regulators. Also the Committee included Senator Gavin Marshall who, late last year, was the Chair of the committee which conducted an inquiry into industrial deaths.
The Hearings on April 10, 2019 started off with an update on Silicosis. SWA’s Meredith Bryant advised that the lung diseases work plan will be implemented by the end of 2020. SWA is currently producing guidance on working safely with composite stone which is likely to be supported by a national awareness campaign but perhaps of more interest is a literature review on silicosis risks. SWA CEO Michelle Baxter advised that SWA met with one of the major producers of composite stone, Caesarstone, in early April 2019.
Senator Marshall then asked for an update on the Boland Report and his own inquiry, There is a lot of communication happening with the relevant Ministers in each State on implementing the recommendations of both inquiries but no firm timeline. This moved quickly onto the matter of Industrial Manslaughter laws. Baxter admitted that SWA has not:
“… yet started a full-scale program looking at the issue of regulating for industrial manslaughter.”(page 68, Hansard)
This should not take long as much of the research and documentation is readily at hand and many of the arguments on these laws have been established for over a decade. It was discussed in the first report of the National Review into Model Occupational Health and Safety Laws in October 2008 and again in its second report in January 2009. New Zealand’s Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety looked at the issue in 2012.
Senators Marshall and Bilyk questioned Baxter on why when $100,000 of annual expenditure was budgeted for research grants, only $20,000 was spent. And the $20,000 covered six grants! Given the paucity of research into OHS matters in Australia and the desire (demand?) for evidence-based policy making, this small expenditure is surprising. It may be that the calibre of submissions was poor, Baxter does admit that some applications were rejected, but it warrants investigation and SWA has committed to provide the Committee with more details.
It may also be useful to note that over the last few years, Safe Work Australia commissioned a suite of research papers that have never been publicly released.
Senator Marshall also challenged SWA over the expenditure of $45,000 on market research
“…. to learn more about our key audiences, their communications needs and preferences…”(page 69)
Marshall’s point was that SWA already operates on a consultative model with members from across Australia. What more could market research offer? Baxter responded that clarification was desired as SWA often gets, and continues to get, mistaken for a regulator when it is an advisory body. One major success Baxter mentioned was the Virtual Seminar Series.
Senate Estimates rarely provide the level of theatre that may be covered by the mainstream news bulletins, but they do provide one of the few views into the executive management of government departments, such as Safe Work Australia. It is useful to know what is seen as the current hot topics and occasionally to ask questions like why aren’t we using our research grants budget?