Focus on Safety and compliance will come

Everyone wants clarity.  We want the comfort of knowing we are doing the right thing or that we are meeting the targets we and others set.  Workplace safety is no different but it has been complicated to an extent that clarity is unachievable and so uncertainty has come to dominate.

Occupational health and safety (OHS) consultants are often asked by business, small business in particular, “just tell us how to comply”.  Once upon a time this could be done but now the best a consultant can do is say something like “I reckon you’ll be okay, ……. if you follow through with the commitments needed, and keep your state of knowledge up to date, and take out as many liability insurances as you can, and become a member of an industry association ….and……..and…..”

The cult of “reasonably practicable” has been a major cause of this uncertainty but even prior to this was the move in Australia in the 1990s from a prescriptive regulatory structure to performance-based.

OHS compliance is now at the stage of the “best guess” or an “educated guess”, if one is lucky.  Continue reading “Focus on Safety and compliance will come”

Company directors and OHS obligations

Since the final report of Australia’s Review into Model OHS Law, discussion has been remarkably quiet.  The ACTU was scheduled to meet for discussions on the report last Monday and no public statements have been made.  Most of the labour law firms have been quiet also.  It is fair to say that most are trying to digest the 480 page report.

But one employer group has provided an opinion piece in the business pages of The Age newspaper on March 2 2009.  The article says little that is new but it is mischievous in some of its comments. 

John  Colvin, CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, writes of his concerns about increased exposure for the Institute’s members.  Colvin is concerned that upcoming OHS laws may be unprincipled and counterproductive.

The Model OHS Law report has said that it supports the statement of OHS principles as are already in place in the Victorian OHS legislation.  According to WorkSafe Victoria

“The Act sets out the key principles, duties and rights in relation to occupational health and safety. The general nature of the duties imposed by the Act means that they cover a very wide variety of circumstances, do not readily date and provide considerable flexibility for a duty holder to determine what needs to be done to comply.”

These principles are

4. The principles of health and safety protection

(1)    The importance of health and safety requires that employees, other persons at work and members of the public be given the highest level of protection against risks to their health and safety that is reasonably practicable in the circumstances.

(2)    Persons who control or manage matters that give rise or may give rise to risks to health or safety are responsible for eliminating or reducing those risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

(3)    Employers and self-employed persons should be proactive, and take all reasonably practicable measures, to ensure health and safety at workplaces and in the conduct of undertakings.

(4)    Employers and employees should exchange information and ideas about risks to health and safety and measures that can be taken to eliminate or reduce those risks.

(5)    Employees are entitled, and should be encouraged, to be represented in relation to health and safety issues.

The article is mischievous in a number of areas.  Colvin mentions how the current laws vary from state to state.  He mentions that

Some carry personal criminal liability for directors, even where they may not have had any personal involvement in a breach. In some states, they reverse the onus of proof, removing the presumption of innocence, and offer narrow legal defences and limited appeal rights.” (my emphasis)

Colvin is talking primarily about New South Wales, the State that everyone agrees has the OHS law that is most onerous for employers.  However, the New South Wales union movement has been remarkably quiet and flexible on the issue of its OHS laws.  There has been some rhetoric for the benefit of its members and to retain some ideological “face” but the union movement across Australia is coming to accept the reality of better OHS outcomes from nationally harmonised legislation.  

Repeatedly the National OHS Law Review panel stated that it has based its decisions on the structure of the Victorian legislation as, for one reason, it has undergone the most recent legal review.  Colvin’s focus on New South Wales OHS law is outdated, reflective, and unhelpful.

Colvin mentions a survey that found

“..more than 65 per cent said the risk of personal liability occasionally made them take an overly cautious approach in the boardroom and another 13 per cent said this happened frequently. Almost two-thirds felt this had inhibited an optimal business decision to a medium to high degree.”

This indicates that the risk of being prosecuted on OHS breaches is being discussed at board level – great result.  Whether this translates to the board improving the OHS performance of their company is doubtful as Colvin’s article implies that directors are looking at ways of avoiding responsibility and liability rather than accepting the reality of their OHS obligations and working to improve them.

Colvin says that

“Directors should not be held criminally liable for a company’s misconduct simply because they are a director.”

Directors are not prosecuted for OHS breaches because of their status or position.  They are prosecuted because of the decisions that they make and the ramifications of those decisions.  If a director is dismissive of OHS issues and palms them off to someone else in the organisation and an incident occurs, should not the director be called to account for why they considered the safety of their workers to be unimportant, even when for over thirty years directors and executives have had responsibility for OHS compliance?

Colvin believes that holding directors accountable implies that directors have more control over the actions of their employers than they do.  Current business and management theories promote the position that directors should be more in touch with what is happening on the shopfloor.  The theories promote informed leadership and an increased awareness of how the company and its people work, they promote a level of engagement that creates a positive workplace culture and displays leadership.   Colvin seems to be encouraging the opposite.

He ends his article with

“More fundamentally, it unfairly treats directors more harshly under the law than the rest of the community.”

He misunderstands the application and aims of OHS law.  All people in a workplace have a responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for themselves, for employees and for members of public on and off their worksites.  Directors have more detailed obligations, but not less, because they have control of production and benefit more from the success of the company than do the employees. 

Ultimately, Colvin’s article reflects the misunderstanding of OHS that directors and companies have had for decades.  Companies need to realise that the best performing companies in OHS, and those with the best productivity, are those that have embraced their obligations for safety and have incorporated the principles within their own culture. 

The review into model OHS law has indicated the way of the future and company directors would be well-served to realise this and get on board.  Being left behind will benefit no one, especially the shareholders.

Kevin Jones

Workplace health initiatives in unstable economic times

All through the Presidency of George W Bush, safety professionals have been critical of the lack of action on workplace safety.  As with many issues related to a new Democrat President in Barack Obama, organisations are beginning to publish their wishlists.  The latest is the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

On 9 January 2009, ACOEM released a media statement which began

“American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) calls on the Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Tom Daschle to address the critical link between the health, safety, and productivity of America’s workers and the long-term stability of its health care system and economy as he begins work on the Obama administration’s health care agenda.”

The requested changes could be interpreted as a criticism of what the situation has been under George W Bush.  ACOEM says the next government

“must put a greater emphasis on ensuring the health of the workforce in order to meet the twin challenges of an aging population and the rise of chronic disease…”

ACOEM President Robert R. Orford, MD goes into specifics

“…calling on Daschle to focus on preventive health measures aimed at workers that could range from screening and early detection programs to health education, nutritional support, and immunizations.”

The ACOEM reform program is based on the following

  • “investing in preventive health programs for workers;
  • creating new linkages between the workplace, homes and communities to reinforce good health;
  • providing financial incentives to promote preventive health behaviors among workers; and
  • taking steps to ensure that more health professionals are trained in preventive health strategies that can be applied in the workplace.”

Accepting that one Australian State, Victoria, is considerably smaller than the US (Victoria  has a population of around 5,200,000, the US had 301,621,157 in 2007), it is interesting to remember what the Victorian Government proposed (or promised) just on 12 months ago concerning its WorkHealth initiative.

“Over time the program is expected to free up $60 million per year in health costs, as well as:

  • Cut the proportion of workers at risk of developing chronic disease by 10 per cent;
  • Cut workplace injuries and disease by 5 per cent, putting downward pressure on premiums;
  •  Cut absenteeism by 10 per cent; and
  •  Boost productivity by $44 million a year.”

[It would be of little real benefit to simply multiple the Victorian commitments by the differential with the US population to compare monetary commitments, as there are too many variable but if the WorkHealth productivity was imposed on the US, there could be a $2.6 billion, not a lot considering the size of President Bush’s bailouts and Barack Obama’s mooted bailout package.  However, in the current economic climate, in order to gain serious attention, any proposal should have costs estimated up front and, ideally, show how the initiative will have minimal impact on government tax revenues – an approach that would require.]

In each circumstance there is the logic that unhealthy people are less productive than healthy people.  This sounds right but it depends very much on the type of work tasks being undertaken.  It is an accepted fact [red flag for contrary comments. ED] that modern workloads are considerably more supported by technology than in previous labour-intensive decades.  Perhaps there are better productivity gains through (further) increased automation than trying to reverse entrenched cultural activity.

In late 2008 an OHS expert said to a group of Australian safety professionals in late-2008 that WorkHealth

“is not well-supported by the stakeholders.  The trade unions feel it is a diversion away from regulated compliance and that it is going to refocus the agenda on the health of the worker and the fitness of the worker as the primary agenda, which is not what the [OHS] Act is setup to focus on. The employers are basically unkeen to get involved on issues they think are outside their control.”

The expert supported the position of some in the trade union movement that WorkHealth was always a political enthusiasm, some may say folly.

This is going to be of great importance in Australia with the possibility of new OHS legislation to apply nationally but also muddies the strategic planning of any new government that needs to show that it is an active and effective agent of change, as Obama is starting to do.  In the US, the public health system is not a paragon and the workplace safety regulatory system is variable, to be polite.  Fixing the public health system would seem to have the greater social benefit in the long term, and a general productivity benefit.

(It has to be admitted that the packaging of health care in employment contracts in the US is attractive employment benefit and one that seems to be vital to those who have it.  Australia does not have that workplace entitlement but those employers struggling to become employers-of-choice should serious consider it, particularly as a work/family benefit.)

Each country is trying to reduce the social security cost burden on government and it would seem that public health initiatives would have the broader application as it covers the whole population and not just employees, or just those employees who are unfit.

Work health proposals in both jurisdictions need to re-examine their focuses and to pitch to their strengths.  Business has enough to worry about trying to claw its way out of recession (even if the US government is throwing buckets of money to reduce the incline from the pit).  OHS professionals have enough work trying to cope with the traditional hazards and recent, more-challenging, psychosocial hazards.  Workplace health advocates are muddying the funding pool, confusing government strategic policy aims, and blending competing or complementary approaches to individual health and safety in the public’s mind.  

 Kevin Jones

Update 16 January 2009

More information on this issue is available HERE