OHS progress needs out of the box thinking

It is generally understood that the attempt to harmonise Australia’s occupational health and safety (OHS) laws failed to achieve the level of change and integration expected. The laws are more harmonised than they were but each jurisdiction claimed special needs and so multiple jurisdictions continue to exist with their own laws and one State, Victoria, is still giving the bird to the rest through poorly justified arguments and pigheadedness. This unwillingness to even consider change, outside of established parameters, is a major impediment to the development of safe workplaces and work practices.

For example, Australia still desires nationally consistent OHS laws as this exchange between Deborah Knight, of radio station 2GB and the CEO of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, shows:

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Attendee list of IR Minister’s business roundtable

Last week, Australian business and union representatives failed to gain the additional support on COVID-19 issues they wanted from the Federal Government during their meeting with the Industrial Relations Minister, Michaelia Cash. The Minister’s media release of the event seems to indicate business as usual.

One piece of information that has not been released before is a list of the organisations that attended. That list, published below and in no particular order, shows the attendees but, perhaps more interesting is those who were not invited.

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Does the tail wag the dog or vice versa?

Trade union opposition to mandatory vaccinations against the Covid-19 virus continues, primarily because they feel left out of the conversation at SPC. However, the support for at least not dismissing mandatory vaccinations is growing.

In The Australian on August 18 2021, the lawyer advising SPC on its vaccination policy, Joel Zyngier of Gilchrist Connell, said

“Twelve months ago we didn’t have the option of vaccination; it wasn’t a reasonably practicable step. Six months ago, we didn’t have the option of vaccination; it wasn’t a reasonably practicable step. Now it’s a reasonably practicable step and so it’s something that employers must consider as part of their occupational health and safety or work health and safety duties,”

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Is tripartism a closed shop?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) policy in Australia has been determined through a tripartite structure of representatives from Government, Industry and Trade unions for decades. It has not changed because the structure recommended in the early 1970s suited the political power structure. However, there are several indications that this tripartite consultative mechanism may be showing its age.

Recently, Safe Work Australia has been consulting OHS professionals, advocates, and commentators through Accenture to develop its next 10-year strategy document. (I have been one of those interviewed) That it is interviewing beyond its traditional pool of experts is heartening. However, it will still need to consult further and with those who have traditionally been critical of government intervention and over-regulation.

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Save lives or save money – the OHS tension

There are two core elements to the work of the occupational health and safety (OHS) professional – the management of Safety and the management of Safety Liability. In the simplest of terms, the former saves lives and the latter saves money. OHS (and politics) has always involved juggling these two extremes.

There are many examples of this tension but the most obvious, at the moment, is COVID-19 and the vaccination of workers.

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Speak Global, Implement Local

Most of the international reporting in June 2021 was about the G7 meeting, but the International Labour Organisation (ILO) also conducted a World of Work Summit as part of its 109th International Labor Conference. Several world leaders recorded messages for the event, and two are particularly interesting – President Joe Biden and Pope Francis. Such statements do have global influence and can support local occupational health and safety (OHS) initiatives.

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The OHS agenda of the Australian Labor Party

Given that the protection of worker health and safety will gain more attention and support under progressive parties and governments, the release of the 2021 National Platform for the Australian Labor Party (ALP) is notable. The 2021 document, unsurprisingly, focuses on the role of Health and Safety Representatives, appealing to its financial and political trade union base as major influencers on occupational health and safety (OHS).

This article will focus on the chapters in both the 2021 and 2018 platform documents related to safe and healthy workplaces, although there are OHS-related issues dotted throughout both documents.

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