OHS legal changes you might have missed

If you needed confirmation that the mainstream media is disinterested in occupational health and safety (OHS) unless there is a disaster or the incident can be narrowly categorised as sexual harassment, bullying or suicide, last week, the Australian Parliament passed important amendments to the Model Work Health and Safety laws. It seems OHS cannot compete with sexual harassment laws (I’m okay with that) or Industrial Relations (or Australia’s wins in the World Cup).

On December 1 2022, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke‘s Second Reading Speech included the removal of insurance policies that could pay for financial penalties awarded against OHS breaches and a pledge to put Industrial manslaughter back on the national agenda.

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You don’t have to talk about OHS to talk about OHS

On November 16 2022, Tony Burke, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra. Although his portfolio has occupational health and safety (OHS), workplace health and safety was mentioned only once in passing. In this instance, that’s okay because he is trying to pass a major piece of industrial relations (IR) law. But some of his speech raised issues related to work or how businesses are managed, which do have important OHS contexts.

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New OHS data but few solutions

Safe Work Australia has released its latest statistical profile on work health and safety in Australian workplaces.  All of the information in the report is interesting and relevant; most of the information is positive or an update of what was already known.  But there are things missing.

The most obvious limitation of these statistics is that the primary source remains workers’ compensation claims data, which may take years to resolve. We know that this data source is not representative of the level of injuries and harm in Australian workplaces. SWA points out that additional sources are used, such as media reports and notifications from local jurisdictions, but these are of variable quality. 

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Curious economic modelling on OHS

During October’s National Safe Work Month, Safe Work Australia released an important evaluation of the economics of occupational health and safety (OHS). The report, prepared by Deloitte, received minimal attention from the mainstream media who was more focussed on Treasurer Jim Chalmers‘ first national budget statement.

The timing of the report’s release seems unfortunate as work health and safety was almost totally absent from the Treasurer’s budget papers. It is doubly unfortunate as the information in the report focuses so much on the national economic context of managing OHS. The data and modelling may be fresh, but all it seems to achieve is to reinforce that managing work health and safety is important and that not doing so is expensive and presents missed opportunities. We’ve known this for decades from various extensive reports from the Productivity Commission and the Industry Commission before that.

SafetyAtWorkBlog was able to put some questions to Safe Work Australia’s Director, Data Analysis, Phillip Wise.

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Governments could improve their OHS performance if they wanted

In 2019, the head of SafeWork South Australia, Martyn Campbell, told this blog that he agreed that government departments should be exemplars in occupational health and safety and that “we should be the pinnacle of safety professionalism and leadership”. It should not be a surprise to hear the head of an OHS regulatory agency claim this, but the origin of the question to Campbell stemmed from a review of Victoria’s OHS Act by Chris Maxwell QC in 2004.

Given the recent OHS-related scandals in various jurisdictions, which have often been related to the management of the coronavirus pandemic, it is worth reminding ourselves of the OHS performance standards that Maxwell advocated for all government departments and agencies.

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It looks like OHS does not matter to the government

One of Australia’s Budget documents, released this week, that should be very relevant to occupational health and safety (OHS) advocates is Budget Statement 4, which is called “Measuring What Matters Statement”.  This discusses the measurement of budget decisions compared to a tweaked version of the OECD Framework for Measuring Well-being and Progress.

One of the most disappointing statements in this paper is on page 138:

“Australia does not have an overarching progress and well-being national framework or centralised set of indicators.”

page 138
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Two OHS regulators under investigation

Almost all the government agencies that regulate occupational health and safety (OHS) in Australia have been subjected to various independent inquiries. These inquiries have been a mix of political, financial and cultural. The review of SafeworkSA closes submissions at the end of this week. SafeWorkNSW is to have a six-month audit (paywalled) of its performance by the NSW Auditor-General, according to Adele Ferguson in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Auditor-General is yet to release a media statement on the audit, but Ferguson identifies several serious concerns.

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