Fair Work Act and OHS

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On 1 July 2009, the Australian industrial relations (IR) climate changed with the introduction of the Fair Work Act. Regardless of the politics of the new Act’s origin, this legislation changes the way that working conditions for Australians are negotiated and set.

The  Fair Work Act has no relevance to occupational health and safety, so why mention this on SafetyAtWorkBlog?

The new IR legislation should reduce the conflict that has been existent in workplace negotiations.  The new industrial climate is consultative and  forward-looking.  In fact, the government is hoping that, to some extent, this legislation reboots industrial relations (to borrow a phrase from current international diplomacy).

Fair Work Australia Commissioner Lewin
Fair Work Australia Commissioner Lewin

It is in this IR climate, and consultative structure, that OHS issues will need to be discussed and negotiated in the future.

In a webinar conducted by SmartCompany and Gadens Lawyers on 9 July 2009, the openness of the information/consultative processes was stressed by panellist, Kathryn Dent.

This positive management climate reflected that presented in an earlier seminar conducted by Douglas Workplace Lawyers.  Fair Work Australia Commissioner Lewin  and lawyer, Andrew Douglas, spoke about how the new IR system is more inclusive than the previous WorkChoices systems.  However, they also admitted that the Fair Work Act has nebulous support documentation and information.

Andrew Douglas
Andrew Douglas

The level of prescription is much less than previous.  This allows for less restrictive negotiation but it also means that clarity may rely on determinations made by the tribunal.  Commissioner Lewin concurred with Andrew Douglas’ point that the operations of the Fair Work system will require several years of “settling in” and some adjustments depending on determinations.

When raising OHS issues for the next year or so in Australia, employees and professionals need to be reminded that many of the managers and employers with whom they are dealing may well be feeling swamped by new industrial relations processes.  This distraction may be understandable but OHS obligations remain the same regardless of other management issues.

OHS may seem to be more messy during this period as the IR overlaps with the “safe systems of work”.  Unless IR is already part of the responsibilities of an OHS professional, the advice is to keep away from the details of the Fair Work Act.  However it is recommended that at least one seminar on the Fair Work Act be attended so that the “tone” of the new legislation is understood.  More important is how the Act is to be applied within the workplaces of one’s clients or employer.

Safety management systems will need to be tweaked to fit with the new consultative aims and processes.  Of course, they will need to be tweaked again once the harmonised national OHS legislation comes begins in 2010.  Don’t expect stability in Australian workplaces for the next couple of years.

Kevin Jones

Safety culture improvements in Spain

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The improved safety status in workplaces that have an active union presence has been verified through research, but what of the efforts on safety management from outside the union research efforts.

Below is the abstract of an article that was published online late-2008 (and is available for purchase).  The research was conducted in a country with a negative safety culture so the improvements may be more marked than from outside Spain.  However, the full study (not accessed by SafetyAtWorkBlog) may provide an interesting before-and-after story.

“Occupational accidents severely deteriorate human capital, and hence negatively affect the productivity and competitiveness of countries. But despite this, we still observe a scarcity of preventive practices, an unsatisfactory management commitment and an absence of safety culture among Spanish firms. The result is evident in firms’ high accident rates.  This situation is a consequence of the general belief among firms that investing in safety is a cost, and hence has negative repercussions for their competitiveness.  The current work aims to identify good practices in safety management, and analyse the effect of these practices on a set of indicators of organisational performance.  For this, we first carry out an exhaustive literature review, and then formulate a series of hypotheses.  We then test the proposed model on a sample of 455 Spanish firms.  Our findings show that safety management has a positive influence on safety performance, competitiveness performance, and economic-financial performance.  Hence they provide evidence of the compatibility between worker protection and corporate competitiveness.”

The full article is available in Safety Science (Volume 47, Issue 7, August 2009, Pages 980-991).

Kevin Jones

B Fernández-Muñiz, J Montes-Peón and C Vázquez-Ordás, ‘Relation between occupational safety management and firm performance’ (2009) Safety Science 47: 980-991.

Evidence, subjectivity and myth

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There is a big push for occupational safety and health decisions to be made on evidence.  OHS academics in Australia are particularly big on this and there is considerable validity in the lobbying but as academics can have a vested interest in research, the calls are often dismissed.

There is also, around the world, a questioning of the value and validity of the risk assessment process related to workplace safety.  In Europe, in particular, the business groups see risk assessment as a major unnecessary business cost (but then again, how many businesses even perform OHS risk assessments?).  Risk assessment has often been criticised because of its subjectivity.  In some circumstances, risk assessment may perpetuate workplace and safety myths.

In the absence of evidence, myths fill the gap.  Sometimes assessments, investigations, estimates and FOAFs (friend of a friend) add to the tenuous credibility of those myths.

Peter Sandman has talked about dispelling myths through risk communication.  One myth he discusses, the risks of flu vaccinations, is also touched on in an interview with Dr Aaron E. Carroll of the Indiana University School of Medicine on the ABC’s Life Matters program.

OHS professionals must seek evidence on workplace hazards so that their advice is sound but equally, myths must be countered.  The links in the paragraph above, along with the excellent website, www.snopes.com, can provide some assistance in how we can reduce the transmission of myths.

I am a big advocate of the “contrary”.  Only by asking questions about established beliefs and tenets can the flaws in our decision-making be illustrated.  Sometimes this is dismissed as being a “Devil’s Advocate” but the process does not advocate bad behaviours, it questions the basis for established behaviours – a process that many people, organisations AND business find enormously threatening.

As we get older or become socialised, we tend to forget the tale most of us heard as a child, The Emperor’s New Clothes.  This tale should be read regularly to remind us of how the contrary position, the quizzical, can be constructive and sometimes, revolutionary (even though in the tale the Emperor ignores the child’s spoken truth) but still provide evidence.

Kevin Jones

Sitting (not so) pretty

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New Australian research shows hours of sedentary activity, like typing emails or sitting at a quality control station, are associated with higher cardio-metabolic health risks that are independent of time spent in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity.

DrGenevieveHealyAccording to a media statement from University of Queensland and Baker IDI research fellow, Genevieve Healy, (pictured right) 

“Although many Australians have adopted the recommendation of getting at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on at least five days of the week, we’ve been getting more overweight.

“The most plausible explanation is that 30 minutes constitutes a very small proportion of waking hours.  It’s equally important to look at what the person is doing for the remaining 15 and-a-half hours of the day.  A person who follows the guidelines of 30 minutes of brisk walking and spends the other 97 per cent of waking hours sitting is ‘physically active’ according to public health guidelines.  However, the term ‘active couch potato’ is probably more appropriate,” Dr Healy says.

Dr Healy will be speaking more on her reseach at the Queensland Safety Conference in Brisbane, Australia on  18 June 2009.

Offshore industry regulator performance

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Australia’s National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority (NOPSA) has released a report of its own OHS performance based on data from 2005 to 2007.  NOPSA has been in the public eye far more than normal due to the Varanus Island explosion and the various investigatory reports.

The report seems to indicate that, as a regulator, NOPSA is performing to expectations.  NOPSA’s CEO John Clegg has acknowledged that the  industry is below the level of its overseas counterparts.  This is peculiar given that other Australian resources industries, like mining, are ahead of other countries and that safety in the offshore industry has had a high profile ever since Piper Alpha.

The report identifies challenges that are difficult but not very surprising:

  • improving leadership – strong leadership is required for the Australian industry to move to the next level
  • dealing with a shortage of skilled personnel
  • managing ageing facilities and minimising gas releases

It will be very interesting to watch the benchmarking of NOPSA and its future role through the OHS harmonisation process that Australia is undergoing.

Below is the full report and the performance summary.

Kevin Jones

NOPSA 2007-08 cover

   NOPSA summary 2007-08