OHS is largely overlooked even on its special day

The mainstream media did cover the Australian Labor Party’s statement about workplace safety and industrial manslaughter laws. These issues also featured, unsurprisingly, in some of the commemorations on International Workers Memorial Day. But the issue was largely left floating, irretrievable in the political swimming pool.

David Martin-Guzman, writing for the Australian Financial Review (AFR), painted the ALP announcement as advocating on behalf Australia’s most militant trade union, the Construction Forestry Mining Maritime and Energy Union (CFMEU). This approach sadly places any OHS activity purely in the context of industrial relations. That is likely placing OHS as only part of Human Resources. OHS is its own profession, has its own principles and is supported by its own legislation and government regulator.

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Industrial Manslaughter – still thin on details and justification

Shortly after a SafetyAtWorkBlog article on occupational health and safety in the Australian federal election campaign, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) release media statements. It is a coincidence but one I should have anticipated as yesterday was International Workers’ Memorial Day.

The Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Brendan O’Connor, and Shadow Assistance Minister, Lisa Chesters, said that Australia’s work health and safety laws:

“are no longer harmonised or adequate,…..

This is the closest we will get to an admission that the harmonisation of occupational health and safety (OHS) laws in Australia has been a failure. Both the ALP and the Liberal/National coalition have responsibility for this failure. the harmonisation process was announced by the Liberal’s John Howard, but the Labor Party had the running of the process for most of its length. Many States introduced the laws but both political parties in Victoria have refused to participate, based on flawed economic assessments. The continued disinterest from Victoria’s Labor Party in harmonisation remains puzzling.

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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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The future of OHS under the Australian Labor Party

At Australia’s National Press Club on October 18 2017, the Australian Labor Party’s Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Brendan O’Connor spoke, ostensibly on industrial relations but occupational health and safety (OHS) was mentioned.  O’Connor provided several examples of worker exploitation and casual work and then stated

“There is something really wrong when those big, household-name companies apparently feel absolutely no responsibility, or consider themselves immune from reputational risk, for exploitation of the workers on whose labour they make a vast profit. This is why at the last election, Labor promised a National Labour Hire licencing scheme. We said we would issue a licence to only those who have a clean record of complying with employment, tax and OH&S laws, and that licences would be revoked for serious misconduct.”

In the discussions about the regulation of the labour hire industry OHS has been given, comparatively, little attention so it is useful to note even the small amount of prominence granted it by O’Connor.

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