Union abuse of workplace safety

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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?

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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

Australia’s OHS Law Review

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Last week, the release of the final report of Australia’s review into National Model OHS Law was touted by many as immediately after the meeting of the Workplace Relations Ministers Council (WRMC).  This occurred with the first report in 2008.  WRMC met in a teleconference yesterday.  When the report is released officially (rumours are that the report is already doing the rounds of the unions and the employer associations), SafetyAtWorkBlog will provide a link to the report and some initial commentary.

However, as reported yesterday, the Australian Financial Review obtained a copy of the report and highlighted several issues of interest.  The AFR report held no great surprise for safety professionals but the union movement is going to be ideologically tested.

Early in the review process, the New South Wales union movement was very vocal about the risk of losing their right to initiate prosecutions over OHS breaches.  The right was rarely applied and could be a very costly exercise.  Since that time there has been silence from that quarter, perhaps because they realised that its contentious right was out-of-step with the rest of the country and the review process is all about legislative harmonisation.

According to media reports this week, the Review Panel’s final report recommends the omission of the right to prosecute but allows an option to instigate prosecutions through the OHS regulators.  In effect it keeps the power where it is most cost-effective and through which a similar outcome could be achieved.  It gives the unions a seat at the table, just not the same seat but still with a comfy cushion.

Prior to the WRMC meeting,  Sharan Burrows issued a media statement on several matters, the source of the ACTU quotes in today’s AFR article, in which she said

Media reports also suggest that the Ministers will tonight discuss the final report of the National Review of OHS Laws.

“It is vital that the national, harmonised health and safety laws are based on the highest possible standards.  This should include providing workers with the right, through their unions, to initiate prosecutions against employers when there are serious health and safety breaches.

“In the past, union prosecutions have been few in number but have secured important improvements for employees who work in potentially dangerous situations.  We also need a truly tripartite, well resourced national workplace health and safety watchdog that is able to set, monitor and upgrade health and safety standards,” said Ms Burrow.

It seems that Ms Burrows may, pragmatically, welcome the cushion.

Also, the union movement would be well aware of the potential boost to the revenues of OHS training providers, a status many unions and union bodies enjoy.  A national five-day training course for Health & Safety Representatives could be financially useful.  Also the courses have always been a very good recruiting opportunity.

Kevin Jones

 

Sharan Burrows speaking at the 2008 Workers' Memorial in Melbourne
Sharan Burrows speaking at the 2008 Workers' Memorial in Melbourne

The reality of First Aid

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Many employees undertake first aid training because it is a relatively easy training program to arrange, it is cheap and it provides skills that can be applied outside the workplace.  

But newly trained first aiders often leave training with an unrealistic feeling of empowerment.  Regularly, small businesses regret the disruption caused by the first aider’s evangelism for safety, particularly if the first aider was trained to provide some generalist safety presence in the company.  Similar disruption can result from health and safety representative training and perhaps that is why many small businesses are wary of this.

First aid trainers need to remind students regularly of the reality of first aid.  This reality is shown in the death of a truck driver in an isolated part of Australia on 9 January 2009.  First Aid is a terrific life-saving skill but the reality is that circumstances beyond one’s control may still result in a death.

In a class once, a student asked a first aid instructor what would happen if a farmer was bitten by a snake in an isolated part of the farm and the farmer  had no first aid skills or kit.  The trainer responded, “the farmer would die”.

The reality of living in a large country of isolated roads and small population is shown in the death of the truck driver.

The role of mobile telecommunications in the article is a distraction and relates more to the current political and commercial disputes between the Australian government and the telecommunication providers, than to the truck driver’s injuries.  

The article may lead to discussion on the poor emergency resources in rural and outback Australia.

First aid and emergency response has been revolutionised by mobile phone technology over the last 20 years.  Mobile phones have caused us to find lost bushwalkers and to get emergency ambulances to accident scenes much quicker.  Thankfully, a quicker emergency ambulance response shortens the time needed applying first aid.

It is a truism that no matter how much training we have, or how much technology we can access, death is a reality of life.

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”.