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Thursday, 23 June 2005
Page: 15

Mr ANDREWS (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (9:57 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005 contains amendments to the Occu-pational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991, which provides the legal basis for the protection of the health and safety of Commonwealth employees in departments, statutory authorities and government business enterprises.

The Australian government believes strongly that safe and productive workplaces rely on a cooperative approach between employers and employees to identify and eliminate hazards that may cause injury or death.

The government is committed to improving health and safety outcomes in Commonwealth workplaces, and this bill follows amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991 in 2004, which introduced a strong new compliance regime.

It is imperative that Commonwealth employers be required to consult with all employees, not just unions, about the development and implementation of occupational health and safety arrangements.

The focus of occupational health and safety regulation must shift away from imposing prescriptive processes and towards enabling those in the workplace to work together and make informed decisions about how best to reduce risks to workplace health and safety. A cooperative approach to occupational health and safety in individual workplaces will lead to improved outcomes.

The occupational health and safety act therefore requires amendment to modernise and streamline outdated provisions which are currently inhibiting its effectiveness and denying the right of more employees to be involved in occupational health and safety at their workplace.

The amendments in the bill are similar to amendments in bills which the government introduced in 2000 and 2002. The key amendments relate to the employer’s duty of care and the workplace arrangements provisions. They will improve health and safety arrangements for Commonwealth employers and employees by enabling them to work more closely together to develop arrangements that suit the needs of their particular workplaces. The current workplace arrangements structures such as the requirements to have health and safety representatives and committees are retained.

The amendments will not in any way diminish the Commonwealth’s duty of care as an employer to ensure either the health and safety of its employees at work or others who may be at the workplace. Rather, the amendments aim to remove prescriptive requirements, introduce flexibility and ensure that employers and employees are free to develop appropriate health and safety management arrangements to apply at their workplace.

Section 16 of the occupational health and safety act will be amended to replace current prescriptive elements which require an employer to develop an occupational health and safety policy in consultation with involved unions. Instead, section 16 will be more outcomes focused. Employers will be required to develop, in consultation with their employees, health and safety management arrangements that will apply at their workplace. The term ‘health and safety management arrangements’ is being used to describe a wide range of matters which could be covered, enabling the specific needs of individual workplaces to be accommodated in a more flexible and efficient way. Employers and employees will be able to make informed decisions about how best to reduce any risks to health and safety at their workplace. This will ensure that there is a more integrated and focused approach at the workplace level because the health and safety management arrangements will be tailor-made to the needs of particular workplaces.

To assist employers and employees understand the types of matters which could be included in health and safety management arrangements, the bill contains a provision setting out a list of matters which may be appropriate to be adopted, 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 health and safety management arrangements, the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission is being given the power to advise on matters to be included. Employers will be required to have regard to such advice in developing health and safety management arrangements.

Safe and healthy workplaces can only be achieved if there is maximum commitment from both employers and employees. Each must play an active part in developing appropriate arrangements at the workplace level. The bill therefore aims to enhance consultation between employers and employees by facilitating a more direct relationship between them to address health and safety issues at their individual workplaces.

The current mandated and privileged role of unions that unfairly limits the ability of other employees to fully participate in workplace health and safety arrangements is being removed. Unions will, however, be able to participate in the development of health and safety management arrangements where this is requested by their members. Unions will also retain their current enforcement roles where employees request it.

The bill gives employees a wider choice as to who may represent them—namely, another employee, a registered association or an association of employees which has a principal purpose of protecting and promoting the employees’ interests in matters concerning their employment. To maintain confidentiality if an employee does not wish to be identified as having sought union representation, the Chief Executive Officer of Comcare will be empowered to issue a certificate to the effect that an employee has made a request for representation.

A health and safety representative may be selected for each designated work group, as is currently the case. Current restrictions on the ability of all employees to become health and safety representatives are being removed. Currently, where there is an involved union, only employees nominated by a union can be candidates for election as health and safety representatives. This limits an individual worker’s ability to become a health and safety representative. The bill therefore provides that all employees can be candidates for election as health and safety representatives.

Employers will be required to conduct elections for health and safety representatives at the employer’s expense. If employees are not happy with the arrangements for elections proposed by their employer, the bill contains provisions for an alternative election option for elections to be conducted in accordance with regulations if this is requested by a majority of the employees in the designated workgroup, or 100 employees, whichever is the lesser.

The bill also includes amendments in relation to health and safety committees. The bill sets out minimum requirements for the establishment of such committees and removes prescriptive requirements relating to their operation. The health and safety management arrangements established at the workplace level will be able to address matters such as how the committee is to be constituted and operate.

The bill also contains amendments to revise the annual reporting requirements of Commonwealth agencies so that there will be a greater focus on reporting on outcomes rather than processes, together with a number of minor or technical amendments to improve the operation of the act.

Full details of the amendments are contained in the explanatory memorandum to the bill. I commend the bill to the House and I present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Gavan O’Connor) adjourned.