Safe Work Australia Week podcast

Today, 1,500 union health and safety representatives attended a one-day seminar in Melbourne concerning occupational health and safety.  The seminars were supported by a range of information booths on issues from support on workplace death, legal advice, superannuation and individual union services.

Kevin Jones, the editor of SafetyAtWorkBlog took the opportunity to chat with a couple of people on the booths about OHS generally and what their thoughts were on workplace safety.

The latest SafetyAtWork Podcast includes discussions with the Asbestos Information and Support Services, the AMWU and TWU.

The podcast can be downloaded HERE

Deacons are first with harmonised OHS law comments

Michael Tooma speaking at the Safety Conference in Sydney in 2008
Michael Tooma speaking at the Safety Conference in Sydney in 2008

Michael Tooma, of the Australian law firm Deacons, is often the first labour lawyer to comment on Australia OHS Law matters and this week was no different.  While many of us are continuing to digest the draft OHS Act, Tooma has identified several issues of interest.  Some are discussed below.

[Tooma’s full legal update is available  HERE]

An expanded duty of care that may extend beyond workplace safety and OHS

The duty of care will include

  • “providing and maintaining a safe and healthy work environment;
  • providing and maintaining safe plant and structures;
  • providing and maintaining safe systems of work;
  • ensuring safe use, handling, storage and transport of plant, structures and substances;
  • providing adequate facilities for the welfare of workers carrying out work for the business or undertaking;
  • providing any information, training, instruction or supervision that is necessary; and
  • ensuring the health of workers and conditions at the workplace are monitored for the purpose of preventing illness or injury of workers.”

Most of these will be familiar to Australian OHS professionals and there is little that is controversial here but Tooma says

“This expanded duty has the capacity to broaden the existing duties significantly, extending their reach to any activities that may impact health and safety.   The extent of the duty as drafted in the model provisions arguably includes public safety matters…..  In addition to public safety, arguably the provisions are capable of applying to product safety matters.”

Tooma expands on this slightly in an article in SmartCompany in terms of an alternative to public liability.

“Tooma says this means duty of care will now extend to issues of public safety, including visitors, passers by and even trespassers, which could open businesses up to civil litigation claims from people who aren’t even employees of a business.

Tooma says the laws allow a member of the public to sue a workplace based on a breach of statutory duty, rather than a negligence claim, which often carries a higher penalty and is more difficult to defend in court.”

The extension of workplace safety obligations to include the impact of work processes on those outside the worksite has existed for some time but the draft legislation has the capacity to highlight this “opportunity” to some.  The integration of work and non-work exposures has some logic to it when one considers the growing push for integration of work health and public health management such as reducing cardio-vascular health risks through work-based initiatives.  It also broadens the social integration of OHS  and environmental management which larger companies are already managed through an integrated structure.

Union Right of Entry

There have been some frightful cases of union intervention, particularly in the construction industry, over the last few years.  Depending on one’s politics the union reps or organisers are either doing the right thing by their members or disrupting the workplace for their own secret agenda.  This situation does not reflect the vast majority of workplace consultations on OHS matters.

Prior to the introduction of the Victorian OHS Act which established an authorisation process for union organisers, SafetyAtWorkBlog remembers one prominent OHS lawyer, warning that “the sky will fall” over this issue.  It never did in Victoria and there is no reason to suspect that new right-of-entry provisions will be controversial in any workplaces other than those that already have fractious relationships between unions and management, and often on matters unrelated to safety.

However, Tooma says that

“The union right of entry provisions contained within the Model OHS Laws involve a far greater expansion of the rights of unions than those which exist in current OHS legislation throughout the jurisdictions, particularly in New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and the Commonwealth.  The Model OHS Laws give unions not only the power to investigate incidents but also to advise workers in relation to OHS matters.”

There was always going to be some changes in some jurisdictions due to the harmonisation process following the Victorian OHS Act 2004.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has faith in the authorities implementing sufficient safeguards that union right-of-entry will not be the hotbed of anxiety that some are suggesting.

More legal commentary on the draft OHS Law documents is likely to be released over the next few weeks as the drafts get digested and the six-week public comment phase kicks in.  It is sure to be the hot talking point as Australia moves into a bunch of OHS activities, conferences and awards events in October 2009 leading to Safe Work Australia Week.

Kevin Jones

Business drops opposition to Australia’s new OHS laws

A story on the front cover the Australian Financial Review on 8 September 2009 lists the “wins” of the union movement in its negotiations on new national OHS law.  But it is the last couple 0f paragraphs on page 8 that are most surprising.  The article says

“The coalition dropped its previous opposition to the SafeWork Australia bill, allowing it to pass in its original form, limiting the number of unions and employer representatives on the body to two each and giving Ms Gillard [the Workplace Relations Minister] a veto on the appointment of these representatives.”

This seems to be a considerable backtrack on the strong opposition and media statements coming from employer groups over the last 12 months.  One wonders what trade-off the industry associations have managed to obtain.

The changes reported are not very radical for those familiar with the Victorian OHS laws – leave for OHS training and greater protections for union members.  But the union movement has (yet) to get a reverse onus of proof or rights to prosecute.

The media release from the IR Minister crows about the Conservatives’ backdown and says little else other than marking the passing of the legislation.  Ultimately the biggest benefit of this legislation is clarifying the status of Safe Work Australia.

UPDATE: ACCI media statement

The Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry has released a conciliatory media statement making no reference to its previously strident opposition.  The only semi-interesting content (other than the fact of the statement itself) is its reiteration of OHS being a shared responsibility and the need for Safe Work Australia to ensure its independence.

“The message that working safely requires everyone to take their responsibilities seriously now has a better chance of becoming a co-ordinated national message, with parallels to the mutual responsibility message that features in road safety awareness and safe driving campaigns.”

Kevin Jones

“Union safety”?

Reading an article about CFMEU organiser, Joe McDonald, today illustrates an important differentiation to be kept in mind.  A unionist’s benchmark for safety compliance may differ from that of the employer, regardless of the fact that the employer has the major legislative obligation to establish a “safe and healthy work environment”.

Joe McDonald pledges to keep his members safe.  A spokesperson for the construction company said

“…there were some safety issues at the site but said they were being addressed when the union walked out.”

How does walking away from OHS consultation improve safety?

The cause of the confusion on “safety” comes from the weakening of prescriptive legislation and codes to accommodate operating costs, and in the increase of the  “reasonably practicable”  test.

The union movement in New South Wales had the most extreme level of OHS regulation in Australia.  It was hated by the business sector and has been weakened by the government as a result of federal pressures and aims but, the fact that New South Wales has achieved a 2% reduction in the injury incident rate, may add weight to the unions’ desire to retain the legislation.

There is a fundamental dichotomy of regulatory and operational approaches in OHS management in Australia currently that the harmonised OHS system may only exacerbate.  It is now up to the Safe Work Australia boffins to keep an open mind in harmonisation negotiations but to also remained focused on the aim of any OHS legislation which is to keep people safe.

Kevin Jones

It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it

One of my colleagues has described her role in a corporation as an “irritant”.  She is responsible for quality, environment, risk and OHS – all of those required business elements that companies will avoid or ignore if they could.   Her company acknowledges that these elements are necessary and values her role and efforts.

OHS professionals could benefit from realising that in most circumstances, they are not welcome, or rather, their advice is not welcome.  OHS is a bitter pill for many companies.  But handled well, explained and discussed, OHS can be a substantial agent for positive change.

Sadly, one construction industry unionist in Australia is doing more harm than good.  Joe McDonlad is an experienced unionist who is undoubtedly committed to the safety of his members in Western Australia’s construction industry.  However, he does not respect the law or due process.

This week, Joe McDonald was fined $10,000 by a Perth Magistrate, Jeremy Packington, for unlawfully entering three building sites in 2007.  McDonald’s actions generated considerable political discussion at the time, mainly because his actions occurred during an election campaign.

Safety improvements can be achieved without confrontation and insults.  A major OHS principle is consultation.  McDonald is a safety-focused trade unionist who may succeed in his aims to improve safety for his members.  But the manner in which he conducts his services is causing widespread damage to the cause of OHS in the general community, employers’ perceptions of OHS and the trade union movement in general.

Sometimes the bigger picture is important.

An audio report and a video report of Joe’s action on the construction site and his thoughts on safety are available online.

Kevin Jones

Union abuse of workplace safety

The fragility of Australia’s agreement for OHS harmonisation is illustrated in an article by Michael Stutchbury of The Australian.  He  mentions the potential domino effect resulting from the West Australian Treasurer’s desire to keep his options open.  New South Wales and Queensland see that a (politically unpalatable) out is possible.

Pages from Open_Ltr_to_Premiers_and_Chief_Ministers_re_OHS_harmonisation_14.5.2009The freshest information in his article was that the CEO of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), Katie Lahey, has described OHS harmonisation as “linchpin” in the government’s push for a seamless national business economy, according to Stutchbury.  This perspective is one that should be watched closely as the BCA is not renowned for its OHS innovation or advice.

Stutchbury misinterprets the pledge by the Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU)

“to make safety the key to their battle against the ABCC’s powers”.

The union is applying safety to their industrial relations battle with the ABCC because their initial attack failed.  The Government has watered down the ABCC’s powers but the ABCC will continue to exist.  Indeed the “lawlessness” of the unions has caused the Government to continue with regulatory oversight of the construction industry beyond the ABCC.  The unions are flogging a dead horse (albeit for excellent ideological reasons) and, as a result, are reinforcing the political and community perspectives of union “thuggery”.

The ABCC action against unions has not been on the basis of health and safety, as far as SafetyAtWorkBlog is aware.  It has been on the issue of union conduct, the way the union progresses on OHS matters.  The ABCC concerns stem from the process itself and not the origin of the process.

The Australian union movement needs to realise that it is its heavy-handedness on industrial relations that is impeding its progress on several fronts.  It is not getting the ear of what traditionally has been a sympathetic political party and it is failing to gain any ground in the community because of its brash conduct.  As a result it is not attracting new members.

It is also disappointing that health and safety is trotted out as a Plan B.  This has happened repeatedly and has resulted in the tactic being seen as minimally effective.  The union movement needs to see that OHS is a core value of union membership.  Workers can be confident that an OHS issue brought to management with the union’s support will get an audience, and is more likely to get fixed.

The unions will gain new members by emphasising the positive and direct benefits of union membership.  A possible campaign start could be

“You will be safer at work with a union”.

There is a place for ideological protest.  The point needs to be made that the powers of ABCC are inappropriate.  But the ABCC was introduced in response to union arrogance and excessive testosterone.  A change of culture in the union movement some time ago would have allowed it to focus on the future of its members rather than continue with its outdated and unpopular belligerence.

Kevin Jones

Does union presence improve OHS?

The trade union movement is an important element in the management of safety in workplaces but over the last twenty years, with the exception of a couple of industry sectors, the membership numbers have waned.  Until recently in Australia, the union movement was able to maintain a level of influence in the government decision-making process that was contrary to its declining membership.

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, told the ACTU to stop lobbying the government and instead generate innovation, enthusiasm and members by reintroducing itself to the community.  Union membership spiked in response to its anti-Howard government advertising over three years ago but any membership based on fear is unsustainable.

Paul Kelly in today’s Australian is more forthright about the trade union position in society and politics but it is clear that the union movement needs to refocus.

Health and safety representatives (HSRs) have been a major element of the enforcement of safety standards in workplaces.  Some OHS legislation in the last decade has had to emphasise non-union consultation on safety issues to balance the declining presence of HSRs.  New research from Europe has found the following

three researchers reviewed
the studies done on the matter in Europe. They
conclude that having trade union representation
leads to better observance of the rules,
lower accident rates and fewer work-related
health problems.

“having trade union representation leads to better observance of the rules, lower accident rates and fewer work-related health problems.”

Transposing these findings into a non-European context is unwise but the research could provide a model for independent research and a comparative study.

Regrettably the report is not available for free but can be purchased through the European Trade Union Institute.

Kevin Jones

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