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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8051


Mr SYMON (1:24 PM) —I rise today to speak in support of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008. As promised during the 2007 election campaign, Labor is committed to introducing a new national and independent authority to both lead and improve occupational health and safety and workers compensation arrangements in Australia. The Safe Work Australia Bill provides for Safe Work Australia to have representatives of unions, employer groups, state and territory governments and the Commonwealth government, along with an independent chair. The organisation’s budget will be 50 per cent funded by the Commonwealth, with the states and territories providing proportional funding for the remaining 50 per cent.

A key priority of Safe Work Australia will be to develop model OH&S legislation for adoption by all state and territory jurisdictions, model legislation that will be delivering on the Rudd government’s commitment to harmonise OH&S laws whilst working in cooperation with all state and territory governments. Along with the development of model OH&S codes of practice and other OH&S materials, Safe Work Australia will prepare a national compliance and enforcement policy. Safe Work Australia will also undertake research and collect, analyse and publish OH&S and workers compensation data.

This bill as presented follows on from the signing by all of the states and territories and the Commonwealth of the Inter-Govern-ment-al Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety earlier this year. The intergovernmental agree-ment contains a process for the adoption of model OH&S laws by all Australian jurisdictions and will enable the development of effective, equitable and—just as importantly—uniform safety standards and protections for all Australians at work. Existing national standards and codes of practice developed by the Australian Safety and Compensation Council and its predecessor, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, will be preserved under the consequential and transitional provisions bill. Safe Work Australia will also have the power to declare national standards and codes of practice relating to OH&S matters until 1 January 2011. Over time, these standards and codes of practice will be replaced by model regulations and codes of practice approved by the Workplace Relations Ministers Council.

In April this year, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the Hon. Julia Gillard, announced a national review into model OH&S laws. A three-person panel has been asked to review OH&S legislation in each state, territory and Commonwealth jurisdiction for the purpose of making recommendations on the optimal structure and content of a model OH&S act that is capable of being adopted in all jurisdictions. The review will examine the division of duties of care between employers and employees, including the identification of duty holders, along with the scope and limits of duties. This first stage of the review will also examine the nature and structure of safety offences, including defences to safety breaches. It will make recommendations to state and federal workplace relations ministers by 31 October.

A later report, due by 30 January 2009, will cover other areas. These will include scope and coverage, including definitions; workplace based consultation, participation and representation provisions, including the appointment, powers and functions of occupational health and safety representatives and OH&S committees; enforcement and compliance, including the role and powers of OH&S inspectors and the application of enforcement tools, including codes of practice; regulation-making powers and administrative processes, including mechanisms for improving cross-jurisdictional cooperation and dispute resolution; permits and licensing arrangements for those engaged in high-risk work and the use of certain plant and hazardous substances; and the role of OH&S regulatory agencies in providing education, advice and assistance to duty holders.

These reports will form the basis of the model workplace safety laws, which the Council of Australian Governments has agreed to produce within five years. When the reports are handed down, Safe Work Australia will be responsible for developing national policy relating to OH&S and workers compensation and preparing model OH&S legislation, model regulations and model codes of practice based on the findings and recommendations of the review reports.

Every year over 300 Australian workers are killed at work. The number who die from various occupational diseases has been estimated at 10 times that amount. Every year over 140,000 Australians are injured whilst at work. These figures, whilst appalling in human terms, also place a massive burden on Australia’s economy, estimated to be a cost of $34 billion per year. There is no excuse for ignoring the safety of workers in the workplace. There is nothing more important than a worker returning home, at the end of a working day or shift, in as good a shape as at the start of the day’s labour. And there certainly is no good reason why some workers should be afforded less protection at work just because they happen to work in a different state or territory than others. Each state and territory has different acts and regulations covering occupational health and safety. Some good acts and regulations and some not so good acts and regulations can be found in each jurisdiction. What might have been good practice 15 or 20 years ago is not necessarily up to date with that of other legislatures now.

It is very easy to forget that only 15 years ago the vast majority of the population had no access to, and in most cases had not even heard of, the internet, let alone used it as a means of information gathering or research outside of a university setting. Just being able to find a copy of another state’s act, regulation or code of practice took a great deal of time and money as various letters and heavy packages were sent across the country. Best-practice outcomes in one state could remain off the radar in other jurisdictions for years at a time due to the difficulty of accessing, especially on a work site, OH&S information for comparison. With internet access now available in most places, there is a much greater need for consistency in OH&S so that, when a solution is found for a problem in one jurisdiction, it can be analysed and, if relevant, applied elsewhere within a far shorter time frame than could previously have happened.

For many years I worked on site in the construction industry as an OH&S representative and at other times as a safety officer. Whichever side of the fence I happened to be working on, the task did not really change. On both sides it was about being proactive and keeping up to date with what was happening on other sites, not just in the city of Melbourne and in Victoria but in other states and across the world. There should never be any excuse for not undertaking a job safety analysis and risk assessment prior to work progressing. Shortcuts in safety do not mean that the job gets done more quickly; they mean that it gets done with a much greater risk of something going wrong. Education of both employers and employees is the key to good safety outcomes and it is vital that this area is never ignored. Far too many times I have seen the results on site when safety was ignored, usually at great physical cost to a worker or placing a worker under risk.

Having been an OH&S representative or an OH&S officer, I know that one very important aspect of the job is the collection and analysis of safety related data and statistics. The complexity of the job could be enormous at times. There were so many different approaches to OH&S solutions in Australia alone. Each state had its own approach and there were sometimes subtle or major differences between legislation, regulations and codes of practice. This has extended into areas of occupational licensing such that, even if a nationally recognised course is completed in one jurisdiction, it is not automatically recognised in another. As a licensed electrician by trade, I can speak from personal experience. Over the years I have held several different state licences to work as an electrician but all have been based on the same Victorian apprenticeship training and licensing exam dating back more than 20 years. Licensing is an essential public protection that ensures that electricians are appropriately trained and qualified. It is a longstanding and effective safety measure but has always been controlled by the separate state and territory authorities. In turn, each jurisdiction has developed its own special rules and requirements on top of the mandatory Standards Australia wiring rules. Mostly these differences were quite minor in nature, but a licence issued in one state would not be accepted in any other. Working around the country with three or more licences to perform the same job never made any sense. The equivalent would be having to hold another state’s driving licence every time you travel across the border.

The issue of recognition of interstate occupational trades licensing has been dealt with by COAG since the election of the Rudd Labor government last November. This is but one small example of how different jurisdictions can affect an individual worker. In each state and territory and under the Commonwealth, workers compensation systems are varied and provide different coverage and payments to injured workers and the dependants of those who tragically die or are injured whilst at work. And in recent years we have seen the former Howard government extend the Comcare system into private enterprise areas that the scheme was never designed for, such as mining, transport and construction. The Comcare scheme was primarily designed for white-collar jobs in the public sector, not blue-collar jobs in heavy industry. The OH&S compliance issues that arise from having competing schemes operating are still to be fully understood, but work site inspections, notices and prosecutions are much lower under Comcare than under the competing state schemes. As the member for Corio noted in his speech on this bill:

… if you were an employer in Victoria in that year—

2005-06—

you were 24 times more likely to be the subject of an inspection—

under WorkSafe Victoria—

than if you were an employer in the Commonwealth jurisdiction.

This figure does not indicate that work practices and safety outcomes improve just because an employer has managed to move from a state OH&S system into the federal Comcare system. It comes about because of the woefully small number of inspectors employed and work site inspections undertaken in comparison with WorkSafe Victoria. The Workplace Relations Ministers Council’s Comparative performance monitoring: seventh report: November 2005 found that Comcare undertook 245 ‘workplace interventions’—also known as site visits—compared to WorkSafe Victoria’s 43,719 site visits. In that period Comcare issued only 17 safety prohibition and improvement notices in Victoria whilst WorkSafe Victoria issued 12,492 notices. And in the report’s time frame, Comcare did not prosecute anyone in Victoria, whilst WorkSafe Victoria launched 110 prosecutions. The role of a workplace inspector for a safety authority is vital, but there must be a sufficient number of inspectors to cover the workforce and there must be an organisational will to be proactive where it counts—that is, on site.

Developing proposals to harmonise workers compensation arrangements across the Commonwealth, states and territories is an essential part of this bill. Just as important is the development of proposals for national workers compensation arrangements for employers with workers in more than one jurisdiction. Rather than forcing states and territories to toe the Howard line, as we have seen with the spectacular failure of Work Choices, where millions of workers were ripped off with wages and conditions with no recompense, the Rudd government is vitally aware of the impact that changes in the workplace can have on the lives of working people. Although Work Choices is still held dear to the hearts of all those opposite, without exception we see and hear day after day in this House the sheer arrogance and the out-of-touch views that in the Liberal Party also extend to working people’s safety on the job.

We do not need competing workers compensation and OH&S systems that provide different levels of safety and coverage. We need OH&S systems and workers compensation schemes that work proactively to reduce accidents and to improve safety outcomes, and this bill provides the framework for that outcome. I commend this bill to the House.