Avoid government interference, get in first

In occupational health and safety (OHS), there is evidence and then there is evidence. Regardless of the type of evidence, there is not as much as there should be. Many companies and organisations in Australia are required to publicly release annual reports that identify their financial status. Increasingly non-financial criteria, like OHS performance, is being included in these reports but why isn’t this mandatory and why isn’t it of a consistent type? Late on 2019, the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) looked at the issue of OHS reporting, with some assistance from EY.

ACSI’s CEO, Louise Davidson illustrates the problem in her Foreword to the report:

“Almost one third of ASX200 companies provide their investors and other stakeholders no information on health and safety performance. For the companies that do provide some information, the disclosure often provides no insight into how many severe incidents occurred…….”

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OHS needs to ride the ESG wave

The current Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) movement can be seen as the latest iteration of companies and business owners reflecting on the broader purposes of running a business.  An earlier manifestation of this reflection was Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  ESG and CSR are similar perspectives from different times but with a fundamental continuity.

Occupational health and safety (OHS) is integral to CSR/ESG/Sustainability considerations but is often overlooked or considered as a business add-on, a situation that has been allowed to persist by the OHS profession, Regulators and others over many decades.

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Brexit, Boris and OHS

One reader has asked about the occupational health and safety (OHS) impacts of Brexit. This article looks specifically at The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto to identify potential OHS-related actions and intentions. The relevance for Australian readers is that UK and Australian politics frequently feed off each other.

The United Kingdom’s OHS laws have been greatly affected during the country’s membership of the European Union (EU). This has been seen as a nuisance by some but some EU safety Directives, such as Seveso 1, 2 & 3, have assisted many countries in establishing or strengthening their own regulations on specific hazards. EU safety rules seem amazingly complex for someone who has no involvement with them but then any economic community of over two dozen countries can seem baffling to an OHS writer who operates from an island with a small population in the Southern Hemisphere.

What can be said is that the UK will need to accommodate the “best” of the EU OHS laws in their own legislative structure, if it has not already. It is unlikely the UK will remove OHS rules that serve a positive, i.e. harm prevention, purpose unless there is a very good reason. But sometimes it seems that good reasons are not required, only political reasons.

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The reluctant acceptance of quad bike safety changes

One important stage in improving the safety of farm vehicles was completed on October 10 2019 with the acceptance by the Australian Government of recommendations to make Operator-Protection Devices (OPD) mandatory for all quad bikes in Australia. That decision is a substantial achievement that many have lobbied, and fought, over for many years, but it will not save every farmer’s life as quad bike use has always only ever been one part of the occupational health and safety (OHS) risks on farms.

The Australian Government’s recent announcements on this issue have also been a little odd.

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Grab the political OHS opportunity

Yesterday, Australia’s Parliament opened for its Winter session. As per protocol, the Governor-General officially opened the process with a speech (page 13) about his government’s agenda. It is no surprise that it is heavy on economic reform but there was a few lines about lawlessness that are of interest.

The Governor-General’s words are aimed at the lawlessness of certain trade unions but we could impose occupational health and safety (OHS) on the statements as well. On the issue of Regulatory Reform and Industrial Relations, the Governor-General said the government:

“… will partner with businesses in identifying the barriers, blockages and bottlenecks to investment. Confidence to invest relies on productive and harmonious workplaces. This means tackling lawlessness in workplaces whenever and wherever it may occur…….

This work will be evidence based. It will protect the rights and entitlements of workers and identify a way forward that will benefit our economy and, most importantly, the workers who rely on it.”

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Beware any politician talking about the coloured tapes of bureaucracy

Some of the Australian media on May 8 2019 began quoting the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, over his concerns about the “green tape” of environmental laws and something called “the expansion of union “red tape””. (Nine Australia’s papers, paywalled) Crikey’s Bernard Keane asks “Does Australia really have a ‘green tape’ crisis?” (paywalled) and proceeds to answer, No we don’t. But where there is Green Tape, the Red Tape of occupational health and safety (OHS) follows.

What Morrison means by “union red tape” is unclear. The newspapers included this quote from him:

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The politics of safety

Bill Shorten third from the right at the 2012 Safe Work Australia awards in Parliament House Canberra

There is little doubt that Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, believes that occupational health and safety (OHS) is important. His interest was on show, perhaps most significantly, during his time as a union leader at the Beaconsfield mine disaster but he has spoken at various OHS awards, the opening of the National Workers Memorial, local memorials, and was a participant in the Maxwell Review of Victoria’s OHS review in 2006.

OHS has not appeared yet in the current Federal Election campaign. It rarely does. But there is an opportunity to argue that the Australian Labor Party (ALP), of which Shorten is the leader, will not only create more jobs for Australian but that they will be safe jobs. To an OHS professional, it seems to be a simple position, a position that is extremely difficult to argue against. However, the politics of safety in Australia cannot be separated from the role and activities of the trade union movement. Yet, OHS is not just a union challenge, it is relevant to all workers and their families, but only the trade unions seem to have an OHS voice. Letting this situation continue is not sustainable.

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