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No harmony likely under new OHS laws

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Unions and employers may clash over Australia's new occupational health and safety (OHS) laws at The Safety Conference later this month. Regulators, rather than the law itself, are in the hot seat.

Most of the argument to date has centred on who should carry the burden of proof. Currently, employers in New South Wales and Queensland must prove they have taken reasonable steps to ensure safety but this would become the prosecutor's responsibility under the draft national model law.

"Any lawyer in this field will tell an employer charged with a breach of NSW's OHS Act that under the reverse onus of proof, the most sensible approach is to plead guilty and do it early," says Greg Pattison, general manager workplace solutions for the NSW Business Chamber. "People are in a system where they feel they don't stand a chance and that's not fair or credible."

On the other hand, Geoff Fary, assistant secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) says, "Removing the burden of proof from the employer reduces the rights and entitlements of workers. We were given repeated assurances by the governments through the COAG process that no employee in any jurisdiction would be worse off under the new nationally harmonised OHS laws."

Mr Pattison and Mr Fary will join WorkCover NSW general manager John Watson and Professor Michael Quinlan on a panel debating harmonisation on October 27 at The Safety Conference in Sydney.

Both Mr Tooma and the Business Chamber say the regulator's approach, rather than the law itself, has the biggest real impact.

"Historically, there have been more prosecutions and fines imposed in NSW than in all the other Australian jurisdictions combined but NSW doesn’t have the best OHS results," says Greg Pattison.

"Recently, WorkCover NSW has changed its approach, giving greater attention to helping people understand and meet their OHS obligations, and injury statistics have improved. What has been achieved in NSW in more recent times reflects WorkCover’s change in approach, not the legislation."

Other planned changes to NSW's OHS laws have angered the ACTU, says Geoff Fary.

"We'd lose the victim's ability to launch prosecutions and the reversal of the onus of proof," says Mr Fary.

"There would also be a reduction in the abilities and powers of OHS representatives, who have been proven over decades to be critical to safety at work."

The suspicion that the unions will use safety issues for industrial relations purposes has led to employer resistance to wide-ranging union powers of investigation.

"I don't particularly have a problem with union right of entry to investigate OHS breaches, so long as it's used for what's intended," says Greg Pattison. "It's the misuse of the right of entry which brings it into question."

"The unions haven't prosecuted very often because they don't have the same investigatory powers or resources as WorkCover. But the number of prosecutions unions have taken is not the issue. Safer workplaces require people to work together cooperatively. How can you have that sort of environment when one of the parties can prosecute the other?"

The union itself is demanding greater consultation of a different kind.

"The ministerial council went off and reached agreement without consulting the unions at a national level – at that level, we were effectively told to 'like it or lump it'," Mr Fary says. "The consultation that's taking place now should have taken place months ago. Harmonisation is a terrific opportunity to have a national system that includes the 'best of the best'; rather than any one state’s model."

Both unions and employers have threatened to boycott further harmonisation efforts if their demands were not met.

"If there are major changes to the thrust of the Review Panel’s recommendations as endorsed by the WRMC, then I would expect the whole harmonisation process would be put in jeopardy," says Mr Pattison.

Mr Fary says the unions would "cross that bridge if and when we get to it.". "I would say however, that our commitment to support harmonisation has never been open ended – it has always been qualified by the proviso that there be no reduction in standards in any jurisdiction."

The ACTU, NSW Business Chamber, WorkCover NSW and Professor Michael Quinlan will debate the OHS laws at The Safety Conference on October 27. The Safety Conference, presented by exhibition organisers Australian Exhibitions & Conferences , will run during Safe Work Australia Week from October 27 to 29 at the Sydney Showground.

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