Union influence on OHS – interview with Professor Michael Quinlan

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Professor Michael Quinlan of the University of New South Wales believes that the influence of Australian trade unions in improving OHS conditions should not be underestimated or past achievements, forgotten.  

In talking with Kevin Jones in a recent podcast, Quinlan said that the persistent accusation of unions using OHS as an industrial relations tool is “largely an ideological beat-up”.  Although he does believe that Australian trade unions have not pursued workplace hazards to the extent they should have, even with the impeding launch of a campaign on cancers. 

Professor Quinlan mentioned that

“most health and safety management systems are, in fact, largely management safety systems.  They not deal a lot with health….. Their KPIs [Key Performance Indicators] are always expressed in terms of zero-injuries or zero-harm.”

 He also emphasised that that more Australian workers are killed as a result of occupational disease than injury.

He also addresses the growing demand for occupational health and safety regulation to move from industrial relations to the area of health.  Quinlan believes this will never happen because matters to do with employment, organisational restructuring and others have an OHS impact.  He says that running OHS as “an entirely separate agenda…is intellectually and factually flawed.”

Quinlan acknowledges the argument that Robens-style legislation was relevant for the time and where union-presence persists but he said

“where you don’t have effective or worker input, you will have serious problems with health and safety”.

He reminded us that Roben’s also advocated self-regulation, a concept of which there is now great suspicion in a range of business areas.

Quinlan spoke highly of some of the initiatives of OHS regulation, for instance, the adaptation of the inspectorate to duty-of-care matters and a broader operational brief. He also said that the current OHS legislation in Australia “is the best we’ve ever had” and believes some of the recent criticism needs to be supported by evidence.  Also none of the critics have proposed a viable alternative.

Professor Quinlan is a keynote speaker on Day 3 of the Safety In Action conference.

Kevin Jones

Note: the author assists the Safety Institute in the promotion of the Safety in Action conferences.

Government report into plastics and chemicals

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Australia’s Productivity Commission has released a report into the national regulation of plastics and chemicals.  The supplementary report has additional topicality as it is released a week before the Review Panel into Model OHS Law presents its report to the government.  The key points of the Productivity Commission report are

  • “The Productivity Commission has recently completed a research report on the regulation of chemicals and plastics in Australia. In most cases, national approaches to regulation were found to deliver significant benefits compared with each state and territory pursuing its own approach. This supplementary paper provides a more detailed examination of some of the features of these national arrangements.
  • National approaches to regulation should draw on the strengths of each level of government:
    • Commonwealth, state and territory governments acting together through Ministerial Councils or other forums can provide leadership and policy frameworks for national issues.
    • The Australian Government may be best placed to play a role in policy coordination, and to undertake national risk assessments.
    • State and territory governments are often best placed to enforce regulations and respond to the needs of sub-national constituencies.
  • Improvements in national consistency can be achieved through a range of mechanisms, including through jurisdictions:
    • adopting uniform regulations
    • harmonising key elements of their regulatory frameworks
    • mutually recognising other jurisdictions’ regulations.
  • In chemicals and plastics, the most common legislative mechanisms for achieving national consistency have been to use template or model legislation, regulations and codes of practice. The template and model approaches can be effective, but both have their weaknesses.
  • Because the process of developing and implementing nationally-consistent regulations can be costly and drawn out, reform should only be pursued where there are prospects of material net benefits.
  • In the past, the Commonwealth has provided incentives for state and territory governments to forgo some sovereignty so as to achieve the benefits of national consistency. This approach was effective in encouraging and enabling the reform process.”

The report recommends that national intergovernmental bodies set policy, the national government coordinates policy and the States enforce it.

The three mechanisms for consistency will be familiar to safety professionals and OHS advocates.

  • “adopting uniform regulations” – already being investigated through the national review panel
  • “harmonising key elements of their regulatory frameworks” –  this was flagged almost two decades ago by the National OHS Commission and work in some industrial and regulatory areas has been completed on this
  • “mutually recognising other jurisdictions’ regulations” – the east coast states have already achieved this with some of their licencing.  OHS regulators in New South Wales are already co-producing and co-badging OHS guidelines

Although the development and implementation of legislation should not be dictated to by economics, the review panel came about through a push to reduce red tape and business costs so it is unlikely that any suggestion that may increase cost to business will appear, particularly as the Prime Minister is reiterating the hard financial challenges we all face.

The risk in an approach where 

“reform should only be pursued where there are prospects of material net benefits”

is that important long-term improvements can be ignored or, worse, dismissed.

The last point above seems to support the recent statements by the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, on achieving trade-offs, some would say pay-offs, at state level in order to achieve change through the intergovernmental consultative structures.

It is important to note that the Productivity Commission’s report is not about OHS but industrial regulation.  The release of the Commission’s report is likely to be a coincidence but, for some sectors, it can be seen as preparatory for the OHS Law Review Panel’s final report.

Kevin Jones

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Workplace health – international response

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Rory O’Neil, editor of Hazards magazine has written in response the SafetyAtWorkBlog posting on workhealth initiatives.  His response was posted on one of the many safety-related Internet discussion forums and was brought to my attention by Andrew Cutz and others.

WorkHealth initiatives – it’s about the workers, isn’t it?

The Victorian system is not garnering the necessary support because it is lifestyle focussed and has not answered concerns raised by unions, who want the programme to also address conditions caused or exacerbated by work. Business is annoyed because unions had the audacity to require that workers have a say in measures relating to their health (the poor little things are supposed to be passive recipients, apparently, taking the medicine and behaving like good little children). Below is my little news summary from 1 November.

There’s a rash of these lifestyle related interventions around the industrialised world. The EU is pushing fruit into some workers’ mouths, for example, as part of the ISAFRUIT project. However, two apples a day don’t make a worker as happy and healthy as a pay rise or some constructive participation in decisions about how work is organised, how satisfying that work might be and at what pace and for what reward. Or wage levels that allow healthy dietary choices for the whole family, at home and at work.

The lifestyle-focussed projects tend to be couched in language about making the worker healthier but are frequently more concerned with reducing sickness absence costs and winnowing out all but the superdrones that can work long hours in bad jobs without complaint. If employers cared so much, sickness absence procedures would not include punitive elements and health and safety whistleblowers wouldn’t be an endangered species. The unionisation campaign at Smithfield is a pretty clear case in point – bad jobs, bad pay, runaway strains and injuries and victimisation for those would stood up against it.

I’ve nothing against been given free fruit, free gym membership or anything free for that. But the time to use the gym, eat the fruit and have a life both inside and outside work that is meaningful and fulfilling might make it easier to swallow. This issue is about good jobs, with good conditions of employment and good remuneration. If workplace health policy ignores these factors, then it is an irresponsible diversion.

This is my latest measured contribution on the issue:

You big fat liars [Hazards 104, October-December 2008]
Oh, they say it’s because they care. They’ll weigh us, keep tabs on our bad habits and ask questions when we are sick. And when we fall short of perfection, they label us shirkers, sickos and slobs. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill questions whether all this attention from employers is really for our own good. more
More on this theme: www.hazards.org/workandhealth

If ACOEM is developing policy, then it should consider how work factors dominate our working days and frames the comfort and health of our working lives and beyond. That means integrating better work into any health model and making sure workers are allowed to participate fully in – and influence the design and operation of – any workplace health system.

Rory also points to the Trade Unions Congress posting that quotes the Victorian union response to the WorkHealth program and says this about the major employer group’s position:

The employers’ group, meanwhile, is adamant it will not accept the changes under any circumstances. David Gregory, the head of workplace relations at the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said it amounted to making the programme an ‘industrial weapon.’

OHS impact of the Fair Work Australia Bill

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Over the next few weeks, many Australian law firms are running information seminars on the government’s Fair Work Bill.  This legislation will change the way that workplaces are managed, particularly in the area of personnel management.

The overlap with OHS will come through the increasingly contentious issue of “union right of entry”.  Frequently unions request access to a site in order to investigate an OHS matter.  This is a legitimate part of the tripartite consultative structure that underpins workplace safety.

Given that the National Review into Model OHS Law has already flagged Victoria’s OHS Act as a useful template, it is worth noting that Victoria went through the same right-of-entry concerns in the development of its 2004 OHS Act as the Fair Work Bill is generating now.

Victoria established a system of licensed union OHS delegates through the Court system in 2005.  Earlier this year the CEO of WorkSafe Victoria, John Merritt said 

the ARREO system had been working well since it was introduced in mid 2005.

Mr Merritt said only eight matters involving ARREOs have been reported to WorkSafe since this section of the Act (Part 8 – Sections 79 to 94) took effect in mid-2005.

In seminars prior to the 2004 Act, workplace lawyers, some who have gained considerable prominence since, warned that “the sky was going to cave in” once unions gained this level of access.  It didn’t, but the law firms gained some new clients.  This type of scaremongering is being repeated currently in the Australian press at the moment.

Yes, under the Fair Work Bill, unions can access a broader range of company data than ever before, including salary information of senior executives, as asserted in The Australian Financial Review, but there are considerable safeguards and limitations in place within the legislation.  These safeguards have worked in relation to Victoria’s OHS laws and they will in industrial relations.

In terms of safety management, the establishment of a cooperative relationship with employees is the best way to minimise union involvement.  It is also the best way to minimise the visits of the OHS regulators.  

Remember that those who complain loudest are those with the most to fear.

Kevin Jones

 

OHS Right of Entry Guide
OHS Right of Entry Guide

WorkHealth – end is nigh after less than one year

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Early in 2008, the Victorian Government sprung a surprise on the OHS and health promotion industries by announcing a world-first initiative – WorkHealth.  This program was to be funded by interest generated from the WorkCover scheme to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years.

WorkHealth loses stakeholder support

Two weeks ago, a well-respected OHS professional advised that key stakeholders in WorkHealth were very cool on the program.  This confirmed previous questions raised in SafetyAtWorkBlog about the promotion, transparency and organisational support for WorkHealth.  The professional stated that others were questioning the placement of WorkHealth in the OHS field rather than in health promotion.

Rumour has existed for some months that WorkHealth is a scheme that has been pushed by a narrow range of OHS and workers compensation advocates.

What made WorkHealth so interesting was that the concept originated from within the workers compensation field with workers compensation money.  At the time, the wisdom of committing such a large amount of money to the initiative was questioned by many in the trade union and business areas.  Why head in this direction when there were established mechanisms to reduce OHS and workers compensation costs?

The global economic problems, it is suspected, would have flowed to the investments of the WorkCover scheme and it would be interesting to know what the revenue allocation to WorkHealth now is calculated at.

OHS/Industrial Relations conflict

In The Age newspaper on 26 October 2008, WorkHealth gained some attention as business groups have now seen the criteria for the health assessments of workers.  David Gregory of the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry described the criteria as a potential “industrial weapon”.  According to the article,

“WorkSafe told The Age the idea of an initial ‘tick test’ screening process had been abandoned, and the proposed $130 million worth of prevention programs are not in the pilot at all.”

As is evident from the quote, it is the pilot scheme that is being rolled out, however it is clear from the comments of David Gregory and the state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, Steve Dargavel that industrial relations sensitivities have not been considered.

Gregory makes excellent points that good OHS professionals are already aware of – workplace safety can only succeed when industrial relations implications and conditions are considered before any intervention process.

OHS has broadened to include the hazards of fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, workloads, bullying and other matters that have encroached on health promotion and human resources over the last decade or so.  A worker health program would have been more likely to be accepted through this osmosis rather than a surprise announcement.

Is this the end?

WorkHealth could work if it had been generated as a workplace application of public health programs.  The challenge would have been to legitimise the expenditure in an already cluttered health promotion sector.  How would WorkHealth have achieved this testing regime when business is already assessing its workers for psychological disorders, cholesterol, prostate health, hearing, asthma, and a whole range of modern health issues?  It is unlikely that it could so.

It came down to health assessments in a different context – a context where there had been insufficient groundwork to establish the value of the program to its fundamental stakeholders, the unions and employer groups.  To a much lesser extent, the program was not sufficiently integrated into the WorkSafe authority’s program before the announcement.

Also, the timing has been proven to be wrong.  The global economic problems are beginning to squeeze business’ bottom line.  The calls for workers’ compensation premium relief will increase in the same way that businesses have begun questioning the viability of an emissions trading scheme.  WorkHealth is likely to be one of those program cut, so the government will claim, due to the changing economic climate.  The lessons to be learnt are more wide-ranging than just economics.