Australian Greens Senator speaks on OHS legislation

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Senator Rachel Siewert spoke on Australia’s review of OHS law on 13 October 2008.The Senator summarised the statistical reason for OHS legislation (included here as statistics is a popular issue at SafetyAtWorkBlog), as well as the societal context.

Australian Greens Senator for Western Australia Rachel Siewert
Australian Greens Senator for Western Australia Rachel Siewert

“The importance of occupational health and safety is obvious from looking at even just a few key statistics. In 2004 Access Economics estimated that there were 4,900 work related deaths each year in Australia. The ABS calculated that 690,000 employees suffered from a work related injury or illness in 2006. The Productivity Commission found that, in 2004, workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses cost the economy over $30 billion a year. These figures go to the economic and, importantly, the personal and social costs of workplace injuries and deaths. Behind each of those numbers is a person with a family, workmates, friends and a community.”

Senator Siewert reiterates the timetable for the initial report of the National Review into Model Occupational Health and Safety Laws is due by the end of this month but also identified a plethora of inquiries, agreements and discussions that will also inform the Australian government’s ultimate decision on OHS law. She supports the concept of tripartism:

“We believe that building on best practice in OH&S in this country and around the world is to implement genuine tripartism and independence. On these criteria, this legislation is too skewed in favour of governments and to the detriment of other key stakeholders in OH&S regulation-that is, employees and employers. [The Robens report in the 1970s]. It went on to recommend that statutory recognition of joint consultative practices-including government, employees and employers-need to underpin the new approach.”

But also makes the pitch for broader representation:

“If you agree with this approach-and all of Australia’s OH&S laws are based on this concept-then you also have to acknowledge the importance of genuine participation of employers and employees through a representative structure. The NOHS Commission did recognise this and was established as a statutory corporation with a membership structure incorporating employee and employer representatives. Its functions included formulating policies and strategies relating to OH&S matters, reviewing and making recommendations for the making of laws relating to OH&S matters, researching OH&S matters and conducting inquiries into OH&S matters.”

My recollection of NOHSC was that representation remained the domain of employer associations, trade unions and the government. Independent OHS specialist were few and far between. Given the dreadfully poor rate of union membership in Australia, it would have been more progressive for the Senator to nominate independent OHS specialists and to propose a 25% ratio of represntation for each of the representative groups so that (hopefully) apolitical opinion could be provided on a subject that should be apolitical. (And I still think an OHS Ombudsman is a practical and useful concept.)

In 2004, in its report into national workers compensation and occupational health and safety frameworks, the Productivity Commission made a number of recommendations relevant to the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, including having a specific objective of achieving national uniform OH&S regulation and joint funding from the states. We note that this bill does implement these recommendations. The Howard government, however, instead of implementing those recommendations, once it got its chance by taking control of the Senate, abolished the commission. Prior to being able to abolish the commission, the previous government had already reduced its funding significantly. Between 1996 and 2005 the then government slashed the budget by over $4 million. We believe OH&S was never much of a priority for the Howard government.

The Senator places the proposed Safe Work Australia authority in a particularly awkward position:

“Safe Work Australia fits somewhere in the middle of the NOHSC and the ASCC. It continues the practice of being tripartite-although inexplicably downgrading the representation of employee and employer representatives-and, while more independent of government than the ASCC, is significantly less independent than the NOHSC.”

Other Greens’ concerns are:

  • reduced representation
  • vague definitions on ‘authorising body” or those associations who become represnetatives
  • excessive and unnecessary ministerial control, including veto
  • two-thirds majority decisions
  • insufficient funding for research

It would be interesting to hear the thoughts of other minor parties although the position of Family First may change in line with varying economic situations.

Is consultation really a “two-way exchange”?

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Talking about safety in the workplace is, by far, the best way to introduce and foster a healthy OHS environment.  OHS regulators in Australia have been pushing this for sometime.

A colleague of mine has pointed out an apparent anomaly in relation to consultation posted by WorkSafe Victoria on their website earlier this week.  In relation to Provisional Improvement Notices, WorkSafe says

“Consultation can still be said to have occurred even if:

* the duty holder does not respond to the HSR [Health and Safety Representative] in a reasonable time or at all.  In this case, the HSR can take the failure to respond into account before deciding to issue the PIN.  There does not have to be a two-way exchange – only the opportunity for this to occur;”

This sounds odd to me and I hope that one of the SafetyAtWorkBlog readers may be able to explain.

My colleague posed this question on the issue of consultation:

“If the duty holder generated an OHS issue and the HSR did not respond, would there still only need to be an ‘opportunity for this to occur’?”

It seems a far question when workplace consultation is supposed to be a “two-way exchange”.