Inside Australian PM’s political problems is a nugget of workplace safety

Prime Minister Gillard (centre) and others at Government House Canberra in March 2012

The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has been under intense media pressure over an issue concerning her conduct as a lawyer around 17 years ago.

It involves legal work for unions, her personal relationship at the time with a union official who has been described as “dodgy” and of most relevance to this blog, workplace safety.

Missed in all the debate is that the workplace safety issue seems to support the assertions of many in the business and industry associations that OHS is frequently used by trade unions as an excuse for action in other areas.  These other areas are usually industrial relations but in this instance OHS was used to mask a unionist’s alleged misuse of member and industry funds. Continue reading “Inside Australian PM’s political problems is a nugget of workplace safety”

Workplace bullying hits the national agenda in Australia

On Saturday morning, May 26 2012, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and her Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, announced an inquiry into workplace bullying to be undertaken by the House Standing Committee on Education and Employment and to report to Parliament in November 2012.

This announcement seems to be another that is buried or overtaken by current political events.   The Australian Broadcasting Corporation mentioned workplace bullying as a “silent epidemic”.  There is a strong risk that the politicians are overstating the workplace bullying case.  WorkSafe Victoria receives thousands of enquiries about workplace bullying but only a portion of them fit the workplace bullying definition and only a handful proceed to a prosecution.  The government needs to be careful that it is not operating to a perception of workplace bullying instead of the reality, even though the community outrage is genuinely felt.

The Age newspaper and AAP, basically printed an edited media release but the most significant statements have not been printed.  These are the comments by the Prime Minister, Minister Shorten and the parents of Brodie Panlock, Damian and Rae.  Below is a selection or statements from the doorstop transcript:

PM : “I’ve have had the opportunity to have a conversation with Damian and with Rae about their family experience and they will talk about that family experience themselves, but it led to the loss of their daughter Brodie. And they fought hard here in Victoria for Brodie’s law, to have a law that deals with serious bullying at work. Continue reading “Workplace bullying hits the national agenda in Australia”

Motivation needed from Prime Minister on OHS laws

In July 2010, Prime Minister Julia Gillard mentioned OHS harmonisation in an election debate.  She said that OHS harmonisation was one of her achievements but less than two years later, at the Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) Congress, there is no mention of harmonisation in her speech.  The only mention of safety was in terms of truck drivers:

“And we’ve moved to protect the rights of cleaners.  We’ve moved to improve the laws for outworkers. We’ve moved so that a truck-driving cabin being a workplace […] can be a safer workplace, so that truck driver gets back home that evening.”

The Prime Minister audience was trade unionists and perhaps they need motivation and support and acknowledgement for their efforts in difficult economic and political times but there is a big move from harmonising the OHS laws across a country to determining a truck cabin as a workplace (which it has been for decades in some States).

The 2012 ACTU Congress included industrial manslaughter on its agenda.  Its OHS and Rehabilitation policy stated:

“Congress  affirms  that  industrial  manslaughter  should  be  an  offence  under occupational health and safety legislation or other legislation as most appropriate. The elements of the offence should be:  A worker dies in the course of employment or  at a place of work or is injured or contracts a disease, injury or illness in the course of employment and later dies;  The  conduct  (by  way  of  act  or  omission)  of  a  person  caused  the  death,  injury  or illness; and  The person was reckless or negligent about causing serious harm or death to the worker.”

Industrial manslaughter seems a poisoned political concept but it remains a potential motivator in Australia even though it is a reality in the UK.  Without motivation from the Prime Minister, other issues will fill the void.

Kevin Jones

Evidence of the need to change how and why we work

Last week Professor Rod McClure of the Monash Injury Research Institute urged Australian safety professionals to look at the ecology of safety and injury prevention.  By using the term “ecology” outside of the colloquial, he was advocating that we search for a universal theory of injury prevention.  In short, he urged us to broaden our understanding of safety to embrace new perspectives.  It could also be argued that he wanted to break the safety profession out of its malaise and generate some social activism on injury prevention – a philosophical kick in the pants.

Before discussing the latest research Australia’s Barbara Pocock has undertaken, with her colleagues Natalie Skinner and Philippa Williams, the challenge of achieving some degree of balance between the two social activities of work and non-work can be indicated by a graph provided by Dick Bryan and Mike Rafferty in a recent DISSENT magazine article about financial risk.

In 2008 people in Australian households were working over 50 hours per week.  The reasons for this are of less relevance than the fact that Australian workers are well beyond the 40-hour work week, not including any travel time.  Work has a social cost as well as a social benefit and any discussion (debate?) over productivity, as is currently occurring in Australia, must also consider the social cost of this productivity.  The graph above is a symptom of the challenge of achieving a decent quality of life and a functional level of productivity – the challenge that Pocock, Skinner and Williams have undertaken. Continue reading “Evidence of the need to change how and why we work”

OHS is Dead. Long Live WHS.

Media reports on the 13 April 2012 Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting say that harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws in Australia has died.  Some say this is the fault of the Victorian Government with its economic justification for inaction but the process was struggling as soon as the West Australian Government flagged its major concerns, principally, with increased union powers, as reiterated in the Australian Financial Review on 14 April 2012 (not available on-line).

WA Premier Colin Barnett is quoted as saying that:

“There are three or four sections we don’t agree with and the principle one of those relates to right of entry [for trade unions]… We see that as an industrial issue.  Right of entry, it is was applied to OH&S, in all probability would be used by the unions to shut down the Pilbara iron ore operations…”

This is further evidence of the political dominance of the mining sector in Western Australia, if it was ever needed.

Victoria does not have the same excuse as the right of entry has existed for many years and almost totally without any industrial relations problems. Continue reading “OHS is Dead. Long Live WHS.”

Victoria’s analysis of OHS law costs is unhelpful politics

The Victorian Government has released the PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) assessment of the potential economic impacts of the introduction of the national Work Health and safety laws.

The government media statement accompanying the report states that

“The proposed laws do not deliver on the intent of the COAG reform agreed to in 2008 which aimed to reduce the cost of regulation and enhance productivity and workforce mobility,” Mr Baillieu said.

“Victoria already has the safest system, the most effective system, the lowest rate of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths of all states, and the lowest workers’ compensation premiums in the country.  It is estimated that it will cost Victoria $812 million to transition to the new model and $587 million a year in the first five years in ongoing costs to businesses.  Most of those costs will be borne by small enterprises which make up 90 per cent of Victorian businesses…,”

This media statement needs to be seen as, largely, political posturing. PwC has produced a report that confirms many of the suspicions that the conservative politicians in Victoria have held for some time. Continue reading “Victoria’s analysis of OHS law costs is unhelpful politics”

Is OHS harmonisation a dead parrot or is it just pining?

In The Australian newspaper on 3 April 2012, Judith Sloan presents a useful summary of the status of the OHS harmonisation process.  Many of her criticisms are valid but she has not realised that the new Work Health and Safety laws stopped being occupational health and safety laws some time ago.  It is easier to understand the proposed changes if one accepts that these laws have broadened beyond the workplace to operate more as public health and safety laws.

It is possible to accept Sloan’s assertion of the “demise”of OHS harmonisation but if seen in the light of an integrated public/workplace health and safety law, the harmonisation process may be a welcome beginning to a broader application of safety in public and occupational lives.

The acceptance of this interpretation provides very different comparisons and linkages.  For instance, the shopper tripping on a mat in the vegetable section of a supermarket was likely, in the past, to receive recompense through public liability insurance. Now it could equally be under OHS laws.  The regulation of potential legionella sources was through the Health Department, even though many of these are in workplaces and often affect workers first.  Should cooling towers have been assessed by hygienists or occupational hygienists?  Should these be managed under an employer’s OHS management system or through the facilities manager or landlord?
Continue reading “Is OHS harmonisation a dead parrot or is it just pining?”