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Monday, 13 May 1985
Page: 1835


Senator RYAN (Minister for Education)(6.16) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows-

Introduction

This Bill is the first of three being introduced by the Government as part of a concerted national effort to come to grips with the problems of occupational health and safety in the community. The others will be presented at a later date. One will relate to general duties of care and regulations in respect of occupational health and safety in areas of Commonwealth jurisdiction, including the Australian Capital Territory, external Territories and areas of Commonwealth employment. The other will relate to the establishment of a mandatory notification and assessment scheme for industrial chemicals.

The Bill is the product of sustained dialogue with the States and Territories, employers and unions and has been developed in a spirit of full co-operation and with a recognition of the appropriate areas of responsibility of all parties.

The level of consensus makes the Bill a unique document. Representatives of both the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Australian Industry have been in agreement at all stages of development of the national focus and strategy. As well, the Opposition has indicated its support on two previous occasions. The Government welcomed this support and trusts that it will continue.

Background

In presenting the Bill the Minister repeated part of what he said in November 1983 when announcing the establishment of an Interim National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. He said on that occasion that one of the most important and far-reaching policy proposals to which the Labor Government was committed was a national strategy on occupational health and safety.

The nation as a whole is incurring enormous losses from unsafe and unhealthy working environments. Individual employees suffer the hardship of physical pain, disabilities and loss of income. Employers bear losses through reduced output and higher workers compensation insurance premiums. The community as a whole faces higher prices and taxes to meet the spiralling costs of occupational injury and ill health.

Conservative estimates are that more than $6 billion a year is wasted through loss of production and associated costs because of occupational injury and ill health.

About 300 people are killed each year in work-related accidents and a further 150,000 people are injured at work each year. This is a gigantic social, human and economic penalty that can only be reduced significantly by concerted action on a national scale and this Bill represents the first substantial legislation by a Federal government to bring about a change for the better in the working environment.

The origins of this Bill derive from the Government's efforts to comprehensively implement ALP policy in this area. This led to the establishment of the Interim National Occupational Health and Safety Commission in 1983. In May 1984 the Minister tabled the report of the Interim Commission as a first step towards achieving a national focus and plan of action for occupational health and safety on the broadest possible scale-an issue, we believe honourable senators will agree, which transcends party politics because at the heart of the matter is the health and well-being of everyone in the work force and their families.

For too long occupational disease, injury and death have been seen as an almost inevitable part of the human and social cost of production. Companies must produce an adequate return: and often the company that is only marginally economic is also the one with the worst problems in the health and safety area.

There is often not enough incentive within an organisation to improve health and safety conditions because a great deal of the cost of illness, injury or death is borne by the community at large-medical, nursing and hospital costs, lifetime care for the permanently disabled worker and the value, in national terms, of lost production. To this has to be added the almost incalculable personal and human cost when an employee suffers injury, illness or death.

And although the top management of a company may believe, in principle, that it is in the long-term interests of the company to adopt sound health and safety practices, it may at the same time assess the short-term performance of its middle-management by production-measurement criteria that could result in injury and other incidence rates higher than they would otherwise be. Such commitment at the senior level must be translated into action through all levels of management and on the shop floor.

This is one reason why a national focus and strategy is so necessary. If the nation is to enhance the working environment-not only to improve the health and safety of its citizens but also to enjoy the very real economic and social benefits that are available-there has to be a concerted and co-ordinated national effort.

The problems the Bill sets out to alleviate are many and varied, and include that of inadequate knowledge and the poor transmission, access and utilisation of the knowledge that is available.

Larger firms are often able to obtain information and, perhaps more importantly, know where to seek information and assistance, but smaller companies have a more difficult task.

This lack of co-ordination between the various elements making up the work environment highlights the need for much better reporting systems and co-operation at all levels.

Health and safety hazards are so numerous and diverse that it is beyond the practical confines of a second reading speech to detail them all-and new ones are being identified all the time. For instance, there are thousands of materials of known toxicity in commercial use already, and all the signs are that this number will keep pace with developing technology. But even the most common hazards represent a threat, and therefore a challenge to the community.

The community's goal, and consequently that of the government, must be to reduce the unacceptably high national level of occupational death, injury and illness.

This objective is not just something the Government sees as 'desirable'-something that everyone is in favour of for its own sake. It is a soundly-based economic objective as well as a socially desirable one. Improvement in working conditions is a basic goal of the prices and incomes accord and a national safety strategy is therefore an essential component of the non-wage aspect of the accord.

The success of any national health and safety strategy rests heavily on the commitment of employers, employees and their respective organisations and governments to an equitable system based on the principles of participation and acceptance of appropriate responsibility. Finally, it is up to employers and employees to bring about necessary improvements.

Central to this is our commitment to consultation and co-operation with State and Territory governments, the trade unions, employers and their organisations, occupational health and safety specialists and community groups.

This consultation led to the establishment by the Government of a non-statutory National Occupational Health and Safety Commission with representatives of Federal, State and Territory Governments, employers and unions in October, 1984, following acceptance of the main recommendations of the Interim Commission. Since then it has initiated positive action in priority areas such as chemicals, information, repetition strain injury and training. As well, the transfer of relevant senior administrative and specialist staff from the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations and the Department of Health to the Commission has been completed.

Aims and objectives

This Bill provides for a statutory national Commission to be tripartite in nature because it is the Government's clear belief that progress can best be achieved through the close co-operation and involvement of employer and employee peak-councils and Commonwealth, State, and Territory governments.

The Bill underlines the Commission's primary role of co-ordination and facilitation, with the major jurisdiction over occupational health and safety remaining with the States, some of which have recently taken significant initiatives in this field. It will still be up to each State to implement standards within its own jurisdiction.

The National Commission will be required to report annually to the Minister and at that time the Minister will provide the Parliament with a report on progress throughout Australia on the implementation of declared national standards.

The roles and responsibilities of the States, Territories and the Commonwealth are clear and distinct and the Bill does not seek to transfer any of these. The Bill specifically sets up the Commission within the limits of the constitutional power afforded to the Federal Government. It will enable the Commission to undertake additional, beneficial, activities in the fields of standards development, research, training and information collection and dissemination at a national level-thus representing a positive initiative in co-operative federalism.

There are about 160 Acts and ordinances relating to occupational health and safety and this is one of the areas where the Commission will seek to work with State and Territory governments toward the introduction of national standards.

It has been recognised on many occasions that there exists a serious deficiency in our Australian occupational health and safety systems in the lack of a uniform reporting system.

The new Commission has the important task to develop and implement such a data base. Only then will it be possible to objectively determine the national priorities.

The objectives of the establishment of the Commission are, in brief:

The development among the community of an awareness of issues relating to occupational health and safety matters and facilitation of public debate on them.

The provision of a forum where all parties can consult and debate matters pertinent to the subject.

Development of a national focus for activities.

The functions of the Commission as envisaged by the Bill will include such things as the formulation of policies and strategies on occupational health and safety matters, recommendations on co-operation with Commonwealth, State and Territory governments and groups and individuals engaged in occupational health and safety matters; the declaration of national standards and codes of practice; research; testing; training; funding; and provision of information. This will ensure that all Australians regardless of language and occupation have an opportunity to participate in the promotion of a safer and healthier working environment.

A fund to be known as the National Occupational Health and Safety Research Fund will be set up under the Bill and the Commission will be empowered to provide funds for research projects relevant to occupational health and safety measures. The existence of this fund will enhance the Commission's ability to attract funds from the public and private sectors so as to ensure a co-ordinated approach to research in priority areas.

The Commission will not limit itself to investigations and research within Australia but will seek to participate in the international transfer of ideas and information and to draw on the expertise of such bodies as the OECD, the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation.

There is an additional reason for intensifying the information links with such bodies-the development of internationally accepted work practices. And this in turn can have a distinct economic as well as social benefit for Australia. Thus we need to work for international agreement so as to level out the impact of appropriate standards worldwide and so enhance the emergence of higher productivity, decreased absenteeism and improved work safety stemming from the encouragement of new technology, substitute materials and re-designed jobs.

It is the Government's intention, and indeed it was the firm recommendation of the Interim Commission, that Australia should work toward ratification of International Labour Organization convention 155, 'Occupational Safety and Health and the Working Environment'. The members of Australia's tripartite delegations to the 66th and 67th sessions of the international labour conferences held in 1980 and 1981 participated in the formation of convention 155 and its associated recommendation 164. Though there is not yet full compliance with the provisions by the Commonwealth and all State governments, we believe the successful introduction of the national strategy need not be delayed by this, and indeed represents a positive move toward ratification.

The Bill provides for the Commission to consist of 17 members, namely: a chairperson; 3 members nominated by the ACTU; 3 members nominated by the Confederation of Australian Industry; 1 member nominated by the premier of each State and the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory; 1 member nominated by the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations; 1 member nominated by the Minister for Health; 1 member nominated by the Minister for Territories.

The emphasis on consensus in the operation of the Commission is underlined by the requirement that there be 12 affirmative votes before a decision can be made by members.

The Bill provides for the Commission to function in two divisions to be known as the National Occupational Health and Safety office and the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety.

The National Office will be the operational arm of the Commission, providing the secretariat and policy development functions, working with State and Territory governments and playing its part in the dissemination of information.

The National Institute will be the technical and scientific arm of the Commission. It will carry out research, statistics, specialist training and other matters to be determined by the Commission.

The Director of the Institute will be a statutory appointment. While the National Institute's work priorities will be determined by the tripartite National Commission, the scientific objectivity of the Institute and its work has been protected within this legislation.

In the Bill the scope of the definitions has been defined broadly because the most significant powers being given to the commission are those of inquiry and information-gathering for the purpose of developing appropriate national standards.

Under the Bill, 'occupation' means a full-time or part-time occupation and includes occupations such as those traditionally recognised as an employee; an independent contractor, a statutory appointee, government service-including the defence force or a police force-a member of parliament, a self-employed person, a worker in a family business, a director. It also encompasses within this definition persons undertaking occupational activities whether or not they work in paid employment, e.g. voluntary workers, students, prisoners. These persons are often exposed to injury and illness which is occupationally related.

The definition of 'occupational' health and safety matters' means matters relating to occupational health and safety including:

The physiological and psychological needs and well-being of persons engaged in occupations.

Work-related death or work-related trauma.

Prevention of work-related death or trauma.

The protection of persons from work-related death or trauma and the rehabilitation and re-training of persons who have suffered work-related trauma.

This definition is in line with international conventions and practice in other countries, particularly in so far as it encompasses the areas of work-related stress-a condition all too common in today's modern workforce.

Because of the multiplicity of regulations affecting occupational health and safety, one of the important aims of the Bill is to enable the commission to declare national standards and codes of practice. These will be advisory in character and would only be declared after consultation with interested parties and after interested persons had had an opportunity to make representations.

The application of national standards will be a matter for state and territory governments in their jurisdictions, and for the commonwealth in respect of its own employees, the A.C.T. and external Territories.

As indicated earlier, it is the Minister's intention to introduce later this year specific legislation to afford occupational health and safety protection to employees of the Commonwealth and those in the A.C.T. and external Territories.

The Commission would be empowered also to conduct an inquiry into an occupational health and safety matter.

For this purpose the Commission may appoint a commissioner who may not necessarily be a member of the Commission. In general, the Commissioner appointed to conduct the inquiry will be required to provide a copy of the report to the Commission and the Minister responsible to enable the Minister to provide a copy of the report to the House within 15 sitting days of receipt of the report. The Commissioner's powers will be broadly those exercised by the industries assistance Commission in its inquiry.

There is provision in the Bill for the inquiry, or part of it, to be held in private if the commissioner is satisfied that this is desirable in the public interest because of the confidential nature of any evidence, and the commissioner may direct that publication of evidence be restricted or prohibited.

The Bill affords protection of the commissioner and witnesses in the conduct of an inquiry.

The Commissioner would have the same protection and immunity as a justice of the High Court in the performance of duties and any witness would have the same protection also. No employees appearing as witnesses or giving evidence at such an inquiry could be dismissed or have their employment prejudiced because of their appearance at an inquiry. Nor could an employer threaten to dismiss an employee because that employee proposed appearing as a witness or giving evidence at an inquiry.

For anyone contravening this provision the Bill provides for fines similar to those of comparable bodies.

It is fundamental to the Government's philosophy that the principles of openness and participation are basic elements of our national occupational health and safety strategy. This is reflected throughout the Bill in the dissemination of information functions required of the Commission.

As mentioned previously, the Commission will have the power to establish a research trust fund.

This will enable the Commission to assist research by an individual as well as by Commission staff, and to provide funds for organisations to assist in implementation of the national strategy. It will also promote the joint funding of Australian Research into occupational health and safety referred to earlier.

Conclusion

The Federal Government has demonstrated the ability to achieve uniformity of legislation in many areas. The national companies code is one example. We are confident that we can work with State and Territory governments, unions and employers, to develop uniform national standards for occupational health and safety, to rectify the serious neglect of past Federal governments and to work in a spirit of co-operation.

Regardless of party or politics, there is every philosophical reason why society should be as protective of men and women in their working environment as it is with regard to the food they eat or the non-working environment to which they are exposed.

The time is long overdue for the construction of a national framework of action. Other countries such as Canada, the United States, Britain and various other European countries have been implementing major programs but we have lagged behind despite the general belief that we are among the most advanced countries in the developed world.

This Bill, and the Commission which it sets out to establish, will provide the national framework and a positive impetus to collective efforts to improve the working environment of all Australians.

Debate (on motion by Senator Reid) adjourned.