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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 18


Dr WASHER (10:10 AM) —As the minister at the table correctly said, the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005 is about safety and health. This bill contains amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991, which provides protection for the health and safety of Commonwealth employees in departments, statutory authorities and government business enterprises. These amendments will provide improved health and safety protection for Commonwealth employees by, firstly, removing the mandated right of involved unions to intervene in occupational health and safety matters to the exclusion of other employees and their representatives and, secondly, removing the requirement for employers to implement prescriptive and detailed occupational health and safety policies which are more process than outcomes focused. Removing the mandated role for unions is essential in facilitating a more direct relationship between employers and employees to address occupational health and safety issues at individual workplaces. Occupational health and safety policies and systems must support employers and employees in developing cultures and attitudes that achieve safer places for work and safer methods of working so that Australian workplaces are free from death, injury and disease.

In order to achieve this, employers and employees need to be working cooperatively together and each with responsibility in their areas of influence to identify and eliminate, reduce or avoid risks and hazards in the workplace. There needs to be an increased awareness and cooperation amongst employers and employees by active communication and the sharing of information and solutions on health and safety issues. This can be achieved only by employers being able to consult with employees, not just unions, about the development and implementation of occupational health and safety arrangements suitable to their work force. The guidelines on occupational safety and health management systems published by the International Labour Organisation in Geneva state, under ‘Worker participation’:

Worker participation is an essential element of the occupational Safety and Health management system in the organisation.

It is recognised internationally that sensible health and safety is about managing risks, not necessarily eliminating all of them. The people best placed to make workplaces safer are the employees who work in them, as they, better than anyone else, can recognise the risks relevant to their workplace.

I would like to illustrate the outcomes of greater employee involvement in the development of occupational health and safety policy. The state of Maine in the United States had one of the highest rates of workplace accidents in the United States, 71 per cent above the national average. The regulatory enforcement system did not address the unique hazards of each work site. Rather, standards were made to apply to all work sites and an adversarial approach taken to inspections. Once chosen for an inspection a workplace was evaluated only for regulatory compliance with the standard and not for worker safety and health outcomes.

They changed the situation by identifying the employees with the highest number of injuries and illnesses in each workplace and requested their cooperation in improving working conditions. The working conditions were improved by developing a comprehensive program that involved employee participation, self-inspections, identification of the hazards and training programs—the same concepts for health and safety management arrangements that are proposed in the provision list of this bill. These changes led to the total workers compensation claim on those work sites dropping by 47.3 per cent. Within two years, the work sites involved had identified 180,000 hazards and had abated over 128,000 of them in comparison with the 36,780 hazards cited under the standards by inspectors at those sites in the previous eight years.

The principles that underpin good workplace relations—communication, mutual respect, cooperation and personal responsibility—are the values that generate a culture of shared responsibility and individual and collective pursuit of better occupational health and safety outcomes. Removal of the mandatory third party intervention will help foster these principles between employers and employees. Occupational health and safety is an extremely important workplace issue and its management should be viewed in the same business context as production, efficiency and cost control.

It should not be used or misused to further political or industrial relations agendas of governments, industries or unions. Occupational health and safety is a workplace issue. If it is diluted or influenced by external factors, such as political and industrial agendas, its importance is diminished. Using it as a guise for economic, political or industrial pressure to coerce or achieve changes to wages or employment conditions unrelated to occupational health and safety is contrary to the employee’s interest and the proper management of health and safety issues.

Removal of the mandatory third party intervention will ensure that occupational health and safety reflects a cooperative workplace culture, not an adversarial industrial culture, and will prevent it from being used as an industrial or political weapon to achieve extraneous agendas. Unions will, however, be able to participate in the development of health and safety management arrangements, where requested by their members. Unions will also retain their current enforcement roles where employees request it. Employees will now have a wider choice as to who may represent them, such as another employee, a registered association or an association of employees that has the principal purpose of protecting and promoting the employee’s interests.

To maintain confidentiality, if an employee does not wish to be identified as having sought representation, the CEO of Comcare will be empowered to issue a certificate to the effect that an employee has made a request for representation. For a representative to be certified, the officer needs to be satisfied that an employee has, in fact, requested both representation and that their identity remain confidential. This ensures that the interests of employees remain as the main objective in developing occupational health and safety arrangements and not others’ political and industrial agendas.

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. Considering that less than half of all public sector employees are trade union members, the ability for all employees to become representatives is essential for a more balanced, integrated and focused approach. Employees will be required to hold elections for health and safety representatives at their own expense. If the majority of employees are unhappy with the election arrangements proposed, the bill provides for an alternative election option.

The bill will also revise the provisions relating to the employer’s duty of care to provide a greater focus on occupational health and safety outcomes rather than on process. Policies need to be seen and understood as a means to an end and not an end in themselves. The bill will remove the requirement for the implementation of detailed health and safety policies and the requirement that these be developed in consultation with an involved union. They will be replaced with health and safety management arrangements that will be less process and more outcome focused. These health and safety management arrangements will be developed through consultation between the employer and the employees so that they are tailor made to individual workplace needs.

Effective management of occupational health and safety relies on a commitment from everyone in the workplace. The health and safety management arrangements will enable this by providing a simple, easily understood and jointly developed policy between employees and employers so that people can understand what is expected from them. People need to know what their responsibilities are in order to commit to the policy. To assist employers and employees in the development of these arrangements, the bill contains a provision list that sets out a list of matters that may be appropriate. Such matters include health and safety policy, risk identification and assessment, training and agreements between employers, employees and their representatives.

The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission will also be empowered to provide advice on matters that should be included in the arrangements. The health and safety management arrangements that are developed between the employer and employee must be in writing. These arrangements become effective without having to be registered with the Federal Registrar of Legislative Instruments. Acknowledging that the development of such arrangements may require some time, the bill proposes to provide employers with a grace period of 18 months in which the employer is deemed not to have breached the duty of care. The bill will enable Comcare to exercise some powers currently conferred on the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, such as providing occupational health and safety advice to departments and Commonwealth authorities and referring employers, employees and contractors to experts. This is a technical amendment which recognises the fact that Comcare is better positioned to undertake these functions.

The bill also makes other technical amendments to various provisions of the act to correct deficiencies or otherwise improve the operation of these provisions. For example, it updates schedule 1 of the act to remove a number of government business enterprises currently listed that no longer exist or no longer meet the definition of a government business enterprise, and it repeals obsolete references to the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Act 2001 contained in the Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Act 2001.

The government is committed to improving health and safety outcomes in Commonwealth workplaces. This bill follows amendments made in 2004 in the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Act to introduce a strong new compliance regime. This bill will provide amendments to modernise and streamline outdated provisions which are currently inhibiting the effectiveness of the occupational health and safety act and denying the right of those who can provide the most practical and constructive suggestions on risks and management—the employees—to be involved in occupational health and safety in their workplace. I commend this bill to the House.