Lawyer says OHS harmonisation has become a shambles 4

The 28 December 2011 edition of the Australian Financial Review (AFR) (not available online) quotes Australian labour lawyer, Michael Tooma, talking about the harmonisation of workplace safety laws:

“It’s descended into a farce, a shambles – only four jurisdictions are ready for the laws.”

This seems supported by the words of the recently-appointed Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, who says that the new Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) laws will cover 58% of the workforce. This also equates to 42% NOT being covered – hardly a success for harmony.

Victoria’s WorkCover Minister, Gordon Rich-Phillips, continues to miss the point of national harmonisation by continuing to argue against harmonisation with parochialism. He says that the new laws are very likely to increase the regulatory and cost burden without acknowledging that Victoria has many prominent businesses who operate nationally and will incur increased compliance costs due to his delay in the implementation of the harmonised laws.

The AFR article implies that a major reason for objection is that senior executives, the ridiculously named “C-suite”, will face increased accountability for decisions that affect worker safety. Perhaps, but this increase has been coming for some time and should have been anticipated by the C-suite.

The article also implies that hesitation over these laws comes from the increased accountability of senior public servants and departmental heads. Tooma acknowledges this change:

“To date, heads of departments in the public service have never been able to be held criminally liable under federal laws.”

The public service is going to be a fierce battleground considering that psychosocial issues are so prevalent in this sector. It will be fascinating (and sad) to watch senior executives in government departments being prosecuted under OHS laws for workplace bullying, excessive workloads and the generation of stress. (The size of the challenge may be seen by recent bullying issues in the Australian emergency services, WorkSafe Victoria and WorkCover NSW)

The AFR has been one of the very few newspapers reporting on OHS harmonisation but, not surprising given its specialized readership, it has focused on the business costs of implementation. Rarely has it discussed the positive benefits to safety management or the potential increase in worker safety. Perhaps there are none.

There is little safety innovation in the new laws. If OHS is about preventing harm, these laws are no improvement on the previous.

But then safety has rarely come from laws but from how people react to, or apply, the laws. The debate on harmonisation has been missing the voice of the safety profession in Australia but perhaps that’s because there is nothing new to say. Perhaps the management of safety will not have any fundamental change. It may be that the only change is that the CEOs begin to listen to their OHS advisers. Let’s hope that is enough.

Kevin Jones

Business silos extend to, and are supported by, the soft professions 5

Most managers complain about “silos” even though they often operate comfortably in one.  Having an organisational structure that operates without narrow parameters of professional turf is very difficult and sustainable change takes time.  Similarly many professions operate in silos and the safety profession is a good example.  Rarely does it “play well with others”.  A recent workplace relations survey report from the Australian law firm, Madgwicks, illustrates the silo of the professions and its impediment to change.

Most law firms that have occupational health and safety professionals sit the unit with the Workplace Relations portfolio, for good reasons mostly.  Workplace Relations, or Industrial Relations in other jurisdictions, deals with the pay and conditions of workers and the negotiation of these issues with employers and business owners.  “Pay” is mostly wages and the remuneration received for effort but “conditions’ is more inclusive with OHS a major, but often underplayed, component.

Madgwicks asked two significant questions:

“Currently which workplace relations issues are the most challenging for your business?” and

“Which workplace relations issues do you believe will be the most significant for your business?”

None of the responses (pictured below) to these questions included any occupational health and safety issues.  There was no stress.  Nothing on workloads or working hours.  Nothing on workplace bullying.


Inadequate risk assessment results in an injured worker and $99k fine 3

There is increasing attention being given to the preparation of Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) in Australian OHS laws.  Amongst many purposes, SWMS should provide a basic risk assessment of tasks being undertaken, usually, that day.  Often SWMS are too generic by being prepared days or weeks earlier, often SWMS miss the big risks by looking at the small risks.  A New South Wales Workcover news release on 9 December 2011 indicates the potential inadequacy of risk assessment.

The media statement reports on a $A99,000 fine against Bulk Maritime Terminals Pty Limited (BMT).

“On 17 September 2008 two employees were unloading 25 to 30 bulk bags of clay powder into a tanker truck for transportation. Each bag weighed approximately 900kgs.

One employee was using an overhead gantry crane to lift each bag from the floor of the warehouse to the height of the tanker. The second employee was harnessed to the top of the tanker truck to open the spout on the bag.

After being lifted off the ground, one of the bags fell off the crane hook, knocking the operator of the crane to the ground. More…

Business leader embarrasses himself over PPE 8

On 7 December 2011, the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper included an article entitled “Hotel chief attacks our nanny state” in which the President of the Australian Hotels Association in South Australia (AHA/SA), Peter Hurley, seems to have been inspired by the same lunacy and misunderstandings as Jeremy Clarkson on matters of occupational health and safety.

The article reports that

“HOTELS Association chief Peter Hurley addressed Premier Jay Weatherill wearing a high-visibility vest yesterday in a provocative protest against a culture of over-regulation.

“It’s the decade of the rise and rise of the fluoro high-vis jacket,” he said, targeting State Government SafeWork SA. “An audit visit from Work Safe SA (sic) is the only thing that makes you wish you were at the dentist having root canal work.”

He said he had been told drive-in bottle shop staff had to wear high-visibility vests.

“Then the guy delivering bread started arriving in high vis. What took the cake recently was the bloke who tops up the condom vending machine arrives, gets out with his case of rubbery delights, resplendent in a high-vis vest. Maybe the topless waitress is next?””

As the opportunity for the comments was the AHA/SA Christmas function and the association developed its influence through alcohol, one could excuse Hurley’s comments as inspired by the event but he produced a fluorescent vest as a prop so his comments appear premeditated. More…

Labor lawyer raises strong concerns over new Work Health and Safety laws 7

Yesterday morning, Mike Hammond of the Australian law firm, Norton Rose, conducted a seminar on the harmonisation of Australia’s work health and safety laws.  This was the last in the current series of seminars on this topic but Hammond’s seminar differed considerably from previous sessions.  Hammond is clearly less than enamoured with the model Work Safety and Health Act, describing parts of the legislation as “bad law” and asking whether the laws were examples of “social engineering”.

Understandably, these comments generated considerable discussion from the audience of around 50 people.

The crucial nub of Hammond’s concerns was the lack of essential definitions in the model law.  More…