VICTORIAN employers will be affected by the introduction of new health and safety laws from January 1 2006, which are aimed at reducing the injury rates in workplaces.
The new provision 'The duty of employers to consult' (Section 35) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 requires employers to discuss and involve employees in decisions about dangers in the workplace and how to control them.
According to WorkSafe Acting Executive Director Trevor Martin, the 'duty to consult' is based on recognition that employee input and participation improves decision making about health and safety matters.
"Good consultation means reduced injuries, better decision making on hazards and greater respect and trust between management and employees," he said.
The focus on greater involvement and co-operation between employers and employees in the new Act, introduced in July last year, is described in two of its principles:
* 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.
* Employees are entitled, and should be encouraged, to be represented in relation to health and safety issues.
How to consult
Mr Martin said in basic terms consultation means:
* A two way exchange of information
* Consideration of each party's views
* The views being taken into account before action is taken.
* This involves giving employees information on potential risks in the workplace that can be easily understood. This includes WorkSafe publications, equipment manuals and other relevant materials from employer associations and other sources.
* Giving employees a reasonable opportunity to express their views. It makes good sense that those who are directly affected by the OHS matter must be given an opportunity to express their views. Employers must have processes in place to achieve this with employees from culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds.
* Taking those views into account.
* Employees should help in the decisions that impact on their health and safety.
* Effective consultation results in better informed decision making about OHS.
Consultation does not however remove the responsibility that employers have to ensure the safety of their employees.
When to consult
The Act provides an explanation of when employers need to consult their staff. They must, so far as is reasonably practicable, consult when:
* Identifying a hazard
* Making a decision on how to control risks
* Decisions about employee welfare facilities such as toilets, lunch rooms etc.
* Making decisions about procedures such as consultation, resolving OHS issues, providing information and training
* Deciding the composition of an OHS committee
* Proposing change to the workplace, plant, and work performed.
Employers must consult with employees who are, or are likely to be directly affected by the hazard or risk. This includes independent contractors and staff hired through labour hire firms.
Ways of consulting
Mr Martin said that there are a number of ways that employers consult effectively with their employees including:
* Health and safety representatives
Health and Safety Representatives are elected by fellow workers in their Designated Work Groups (a DWG is a group of employees who share similar workplace OHS concerns and conditions).
Representatives have a range of powers. They should receive training in health and safety and have rights to investigate complaints and make representations to employers about matters concerning other workers in the DWG.
Mr Martin said that Representatives play an important role in companies. "They are generally the voice of their fellow workmates, who for one reason or another don't have the confidence to speak up about hazards or don't feel they can explain it well,” he said.
* Health and safety committees
One of the most common ways for employers and employees to discuss issues is through health and safety committees.
At least half of a health and safety committee should comprise of employees and it should meet at least once every three months (preferably more) or at any time the members require.
The role of health and safety committees is to create safety policies, standards and rules as well as to address on going and emerging issues.
* Other agreed procedures for consulting employees. Most companies use standard communication processes in dealing with health and safety issues, however, for some companies because of a variety of reasons including location and shift work, other agreed procedures are used to make workplaces safer.
Agreed procedures must have been agreed by a majority of employees.
Resolving health and safety issues
While full agreement may not always be reached, consultation provides a source of information that will assist understanding in some way or for some parts of the issue.
If an issue does arise and consultation fails to provide an outcome and there aren't any agreed procedures in place, the Occupational Health and Safety (Issue Resolution) Regulations 1999 must be followed.
Employers should however consider their procedures for resolving OHS issues at the same time that they are working out processes for consultation.
Mr Martin said many companies in Victoria already had good consultation processes in place and were reaping the benefits of greater communication between management and employees.
"Consultation on health and safety not only results in reduced injuries but creates a greater openness and trust between employees and management through developing an understanding of each others points of view,” he said.