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Wednesday, 26 June 2002
Page: 4382

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (9:46 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The amendments in this bill will provide enhanced protections for Commonwealth employees at work and reflect the government's commitment to achieving safer workplaces.

Safe and healthy workplaces is an important issue for all Australians. At the May 2002 meeting of the Workplace Relations Ministers Council, ministers from the Commonwealth and all state and territory jurisdictions endorsed a landmark new national occupational health and safety strategy which envisages workplaces free from work related death, injury and disease. For the first time all Australian governments have set national targets to improve occupational health and safety. The Commonwealth is fully committed to this initiative and the amendments in this bill will contribute to the implementation of this national OH&S strategy.

This bill proposes to amend the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991, which is the legislative basis for the protection of the health and safety at work of Commonwealth employees in departments, statutory authorities and government business enterprises.

This bill is similar to a 2000 bill which lapsed when parliament was prorogued last year. This bill includes some additional changes to provide further protections for employees. Some amendments are also included to strengthen the compliance provisions.

The amendments in this bill will shift the focus of occupational health and safety regulation in Commonwealth employment away from imposing solutions and towards enabling those in the workplace to work together to make informed decisions about workplace safety. While this will give employers and employees added flexibility in meeting their obligations, the new compliance provisions will ensure that such flexibility is subject to a strong and effective enforcement regime if obligations are not met.

The key amendments proposed in this bill relate to the employer's duty of care, workplace arrangements and compliance.

This bill amends section 16 of the OH&S Act to replace current prescriptive elements requiring an employer to develop an occupational health and safety policy in consultation with unions. Instead section 16 will be more outcomes focused because of the new requirement for employers to develop, in consultation with their employees, safety management arrangements that will apply at the workplace.

This should ensure a more integrated and focused approach at the workplace level. Safety management arrangements will be tailor-made to the needs of particular enterprises. If employers do not develop adequate safety management arrangements to protect their employees, they will be in breach of their duty of care under the act.

The term `safety management arrangements' describes a wide range of matters which could or should be addressed at the workplace level. To assist employers and employees understand the types of matters which could be included in these arrangements, this bill includes a new provision setting out a non-mandatory and non-exclusive list of matters which may be appropriate to be adopted in safety management arrangements, such as a health and safety policy, risk identification and assessment, training and agreements between employers, employees and their representatives.

To further assist the development of safety management arrangements, the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission is gaining the power to advise on matters to be included, and employers will be required to heed such advice in developing safety management arrangements.

This bill will enhance consultation between employers and employees by facilitating a more direct relationship between them. The current prerogative role of unions, which limits the ability of employees to fully participate in workplace health and safety arrangements, is being removed. Unions will, however, still be able to participate in the development of workplace safety management arrangements where employees request it. Unions will also retain their current enforcement roles where employees request it. New amendments in this bill give employees a wider choice as to who may represent them—namely, another employee, a registered organisation or an association of employees which has a principal purpose of protecting and promoting the employees' interests in matters concerning their employment.

A health and safety representative will be elected for each designated work group, as is currently the case. However, current restrictions on the ability of employees to become health and safety representatives are being removed. Currently, where there is an involved union, only employees nominated by the union can be candidates for election as health and safety representatives. This limits an individual worker's rights. So this bill provides that all employees can be candidates for election as health and safety representatives of employees in a designated work group. As in the 2000 bill, this bill requires employers to conduct elections for health and safety representatives at the employers' expense. This bill contains a further amendment to provide an alternative election option, which will enable employees to request that the election be conducted in accordance with regulations if requested by a majority of the employees in the designated work group or 100 employees, whichever is the less.

As in the 2000 bill, this bill also contains amendments in relation to health and safety committees.

This bill includes the amendments to encourage compliance, which were previously part of the 2000 bill. In particular, new remedies of enforceable undertakings, injunctions and remedial orders are included, which will enable Comcare, the regulatory body under the act, to work with employers and others to remove risks to the health and safety of employees before an injury occurs.

This bill also includes the amendments in the 2000 bill which will substantially increase the levels of penalties in the OH&S Act and will make provision for the imposition of civil as well as criminal penalties. A new feature in this bill is the extension of liability for the imposition of civil pecuniary penalties to Commonwealth employers.

I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Cox) adjourned.