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.