Australia’s safety community is waiting to see how state and territory ministers respond to the report Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard intends will form the basis of national laws for OHS, following last night’s meeting of the Workplace Relations Minister’s Council (WRMC).
Some of the report’s recommendations were leaked before the meeting yesterday to the Australian Financial Review, which suggested the model was largely based on Victorian OHS laws, which are popular with employers.
The account also said the proposed national legislation would block unions from launching their own workplace safety prosecutions and that employers, in some states would have to fund extra leave for worker safety training.
The panel that wrote the report includes former chief executive of the national OHS commission Robin Stewart-Crompton, WA industrial relations commissioner Stephanie Mayman and Freehills partner Barry Sheriff. Mr Sherriff who will speak on the subject at the opening breakfast of the upcoming Safety In Action Conference with his address – Recommendations for a Model OHS Act: Putting it all into Perspective.
A number of safety experts yesterday agreed that consistent national OHS will benefit employees as well as employers, if the best of each state system is integrated into the laws.
The University of NSW’s Professor Michael Quinlan said consistent legislation would be positive, provided existing standards weren’t diminished. Professor Quinlan said the WRMC must avoid adopting lower standards when it supports national legislation.
“If superior legislation is overridden or doesn’t become the standard, I have serious concerns. For example, NSW has what I believe to be the best legislation dealing with safety in the clothing and trucking industries – I would not like to see them lost in the harmonisation process.”
Professor Quinlan, who will speak at the Safety In Action Conference in April, is one of the authors of a five-year study of Australia’s occupational health and safety inspectorates. Adamant that consistent national legislation doesn’t mean every state safety Act needs to be identical, he says nuances to the safety requirements of each state must be considered within the model occupational health and safety legislation.
Specialist in OHS law and senior associate at Holding Redlich, James Schluter said yesterday that national safety legislation is inevitable and points out that OHS is “one of the last employment areas to go national”.
He believes it should be more of a consultative process and that until now there hasn’t been enough clarity between what is found in different states. “Duty of care is the most fundamental issue and getting the balance between duty of care and how it is discharged will be the challenge.”
The most important task for the board and management of a company is to provide for the health and safety of employees, according to Susan Heron, CEO at the Victorian branch of the Australian Institute of Management.
And while national OHS legislation will make it easier for mobile employees working across state boundaries, she said it will also be good for businesses when it comes to compliance and risk management. “It should boost productivity across the business and make it easier for companies operating across Australia to achieve better OHS outcomes,” she said today. Heron also believes national OHS legislation will encourage international companies to invest in Australia as it will “reduce the cost and burden of having to adhere to different state OHS legislation”.
Like Quinlan, Schluter says differences between states and their safety management resources also need to be considered in the model occupational health and safety legislation.
“For example, NSW has a lot of resources dedicated to safety and has a very active inspectorate. Some other states don’t have the same level of activity and current safety Acts are enforced differently in different states.”
Both Quinlan and Schluter agree the union influence on OHS in NSW has historically been beneficial, with Quinlan especially adamant that the national legislation should provide for union influence on workplace safety.
“Unions are not using this power frivolously, as has been suggested. Historically, they have launched fewer than 20 cases and have won virtually every case they have run. One of the reasons we have security barriers for tellers in banks today is a result of a case pursued by the Finance Sector Union,” he said.
The WRMC is expected to release its report on the results of last night’s meeting shortly and the issue of OHS harmonisation in Australia is one which will be covered in detail by a range of speakers at the Safety In Action Conference from March 31 to April 2 in 2009 at the Melbourne Convention Centre.
The Safety In Action Conference will also mark the 60th anniversary of host, the Safety Institute of Australia. The Safety In Action trade show will be held concurrently at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre.