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Opening address to the National OHS Commission - Construction Conference: Sheraton Towers Southgate, Melbourne: 28 June 2004.

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National OHS Commission - Construction Conference

National OHS Commission

Sheraton Towers Southgate, Melbourne

Thankyou for the opportunity to address you at the outset of this important conference.

Whatever differences in policy and perspective there might be on various matters between the organisations that you represent, there appears to be unanimity on at least one thing - that the occupational health and safety performance of the construction industry is poor.

The Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry stated that it was “universally accepted” - by governments, by employers, and by unions - that OHS is of fundamental importance to the industry.

Commissioner Cole declared the occupational health and safety performance of the industry to be “unacceptable”. I have heard no dissenting opinions.

He also observed the number and nature of injuries that occur is known; that the most dangerous aspects of the industry are known and the most frequent causes of injury are known.

Yet the performance of the industry, despite some improvement, is still poor.

Between 1998-99 and 2001-02 there were 189 fatalities in the building and construction industry. Statistics show that people working in the industry are more than twice as likely to be killed at work than the Australian all-industries average.

The economic cost of workplace accidents to workers, employers and the community is estimated to be in excess of $30 billion annually or some 5% of Gross Domestic Product.

Responsibility for this must be shared by all stakeholders represented at this conference. We must all act to make continual improvements.

This conference - a direct consequence of one of the Royal Commission’s recommendations - is one further step towards improving the industry’s performance.

The conference is an opportunity to refine existing improvement strategies; to capture the benefits of the experience of others in the various jurisdictions; and to develop new approaches.


The conference is also consistent with the landmark National OHS Strategy 2002-2012, endorsed by the Workplace Relations Minister’s Council in May 2002.

The Strategy signifies the commitment of all Australian governments, as well as industry and unions, to work cooperatively on national priorities for improving OHS. Virtually every organisation represented at this Conference, either directly or indirectly, has endorsed the Strategy.

The Workplace Relations’ Ministers’ Council has endorsed a proposal to communicate key OHS messages more effectively and to better engage industry through national communication initiatives.

The Royal Commission also recommended that uniform national OHS standards be developed for the building and construction industry under the National OHS Strategy.

Ministers also agreed to the development of national regulatory material for the construction industry and, last month, agreed to release the draft materials for public comment.

The release of the Proposed National Standard for Construction Work is a major development.

As representatives of major organisations with extensive involvement in the industry, and as respondents to the National OHS Strategy, I encourage you to make every endeavour to ensure widespread consideration of these materials.


The Productivity Commission’s (Commission) inquiry into national occupational health and safety (OHS) and workers’ compensation arrangements is also relevant to this conference.

The Commission acknowledges the lack of national consistency in OHS and workers’ compensation. This results in less effective OHS outcomes.

It also leads to varied outcomes for injured workers, in terms of coverage and compensation under workers’

compensation schemes, and to higher costs for business.

The Report demonstrates that the current approach to delivering national consistency has not worked. It also shows that there is widespread support for improvement and reform to the national framework.

The Government has welcomed the broad direction of the Commission’s recommendations. However, it does not support its proposals in relation to NOHSC, or for an alternative national worker’s compensation scheme to operate in parallel with existing State schemes.

Government’s proposed national consultative framework

The Government is proposing strategies for revitalising the consultative framework which build on cooperation with the States and other stakeholders.

The key strategy is to revitalise the national consultative arrangements through the establishment of a new non-legislative national advisory council - the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC) - that would cover both OHS and workers’ compensation.

The Government sees several significant benefits in this:

● there will be, for the first time, a national body charged with addressing national consistency for workers’

compensation; ● one advisory forum for both OHS and workers’ compensation will build on the synergies between the two

systems; ● the states will have greater opportunities to be more actively engaged in national safety standard development;

and importantly ● industry stakeholders will their maintain involvement and influence over the national OHS agenda while for

the first time, being able to consult through the national forum with governments on national workers’ compensation policies.

New National Advisory Council

The role of the Council would be to develop the broad policy and strategic directions for the OHS and workers’ compensation programmes under the guidance of the WRMC, with the aim of achieving national consistency in both.

The Council would build on the achievements of NOHSC in pursuing a national approach to OHS. The important work currently undertaken by NOHSC would carry on under this new framework.

The Council’s task on workers’ compensation would be to identify and recommend design elements of schemes to achieve national consistency.

The Council would also provide advice on the development of national standards in OHS and consistent approaches to workers’ compensation, approved by WRMC.

The Council could nominate lead jurisdictions to undertake development of OHS standards and codes as regulatory instruments. This would give the States and Territories more ownership of these instruments. Together with the broader consultative base of the Council, this would lead to earlier and more consistent implementation of national

standards and codes than has occurred to date.

The WRMC would be able to issue national standards and codes developed through this process to facilitate their adoption by jurisdictions.

Importantly, the Government remains committed to the National OHS Strategy and to national efforts to implement the Strategy. The BCI has been identified as a priority industry for national action in the national action plans which underpin the Strategy.

Membership of the Council would include an independent Chair, representatives from each jurisdiction as well as employer and employee representatives.

The Council would be fully funded by the Australian Government.

Relevance to the BCI

The new arrangements would have particular benefits for the BCI.

Workers in the BCI tend to be mobile and many employers operate in more than one jurisdiction. Consistency is therefore an important issue for this industry. The proposed new arrangements should lead to more effective, more consistent, and more equitable outcomes in relation to injury prevention, rehabilitation and return to work arrangements for the BCI.

The WRMC recently agreed to the release for public comment, of a draft national standard for building and a draft national code of practice for the prevention of falls from heights.

When these instruments have been finalised, one of the first tasks of the new body would be to recommend to the WRMC that the WRMC issue the two instruments so that the States and Territories can adopt them without delay and in a consistent manner.

The Abolition of NOHSC

The establishment of the Council means there would no longer be a need to retain NOHSC as a separate body, however its work will be carried on by the new Council

I have already commenced an extensive consultation process with relevant stakeholders to seek agreement and support for establishing the ASCC.


Let me now turn to the action that the Australian Government proposes to take itself with the aim of improving OHS performance on its own projects, and through its influence, more generally.

At the outset, I note that the Australian Government, as well as being committed to improving occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry generally, is also committed to ensuring that its own projects are completed safely, as well as on time and on budget.

The Royal Commission made a number of recommendations directed at the role of the Government.

Its main recommendation in this regard was that the Australian Government, using its influence as a client and provider of capital, act as a ‘model client’ to foster a new paradigm where work must be performed safely, as well as on budget and on time.

It advanced several proposals for doing this, and the Government has largely accepted them. The primary recommendations in this regard were:

● the establishment of a Federal Safety Commissioner;

● the establishment of an OHS accreditation scheme for Australian Government building and construction work,

to be administered by the Federal Safety Commissioner; and ● incorporation of the key elements of the Royal Commission’s OHS recommendations in the Building Code

and Guidelines.

The Government’s proposals in response to the Royal Commission have been the subject of considerable scrutiny.

However, let me take this opportunity to reiterate the views I expressed on 25 March this year:

“If the Labor Party continues to delay the passage of the Bill, the Government will also pursue the use of alternative arrangements to establish the Federal Safety Commissioner to address the significant occupational health and safety issues within the industry. …… Safety is a serious issue and this Government is serious about improving safety outcomes. We will do this by requiring best practice on Australian Government construction sites.”

Federal Safety Commissioner

As the original Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill has not been passed, I am pleased to announce today the establishment - by administrative means - of a Federal Safety Commissioner.

The Federal Safety Commissioner will be administratively empowered to under take the primary task of using the influence of the Australian Government as a client and provider of capital to foster improved OHS performance in the industry.

In this regard, many of you will be familiar with the pre-qualification, or accreditation, arrangements operated by state public works agencies.

In much the same way, the Federal Safety Commissioner will develop, implement and administer an accreditation scheme, focussed on occupational health and safety, to apply to Australian Government construction projects.

The FSC will advise on the occupational health and safety elements of the Building Code, and promote and monitor compliance with this aspect of the Code.

I mentioned safe design in the context of the National Strategy. The FSC will aim to raise the level of consideration that agencies and contractors give to reducing, if not eliminating, OHS risk in construction at the design stage, before construction work begins.

OHS Accreditation Scheme

The aim of the proposed OHS accreditation scheme will be to ensure that only those providers of construction services who can show that they have effective health and safety systems in place, and that they apply them in practice, are engaged to work on Australian Government construction projects.

In other words, it will be a contractual requirement.

For example, a builder seeking OHS accreditation will have to demonstrate that adequate and certifiable management systems are in place to support ‘best practice’ OHS outcomes. The implementation of an applicant’s OHS management system will be tested by audit on their sites, and continuing accreditation will be subject to confirmation by periodic on-the-job audits.

The accreditation schemes operated by states agencies make reference to OHS. The OHS components of such schemes will be taken into appropriate account by the FSC in the development of the Australian Government OHS accreditation scheme.

It is envisaged that a pre-tender accreditation scheme of this kind will help ensure that the benefits of investment in high quality OHS practices are recognised, and that the costs of poor OHS are properly taken into account.

Broadly speaking, I would expect that the OHS accreditation scheme will:

● be risk based;

● strike a suitable balance of performance and prescription in its design and operation;

focus on activity rather than system auditing in order to address hazardous conditions and activities on particular sites; and ● use forward-looking performance measurements as well as measures of past performance.

The Government recognises that workable transition arrangements will be required for the introduction of the OHS accreditation scheme. Industry bodies will be consulted on proposed arrangements.

OHS Elements of the Code and Guidelines

The Royal Commission was critical of the Australian Government’s general application of the National Code of Practice for the Construction Industry and Guidelines. The Government’s intentions in relation to more rigorous application of the Code were announced by my predecessor in September last year.

The Royal Commission proposed that its recommendations on OHS be reflected appropriately in a revised Code and Guidelines.

The Federal Safety Commissioner will be responsible for advising on the OHS aspects of the Code and Guidelines, and for promoting and monitoring compliance with them.

No additional statutory OHS framework for the industry

Let me also say what we do not intend to do.

The Government does not propose to establish a new statutory occupational health and safety framework for the building and construction industry.

Australia has more than enough agencies regulating OHS, without needing another.

It is not intended that the Federal Safety Commissioner have a role in enforcing occupational health and safety laws that apply in any State or Territory. Under current arrangements, this is the responsibility of state and territory regulatory agencies and they should be accountable for the quality of their performance in meeting it. It is mischievous to suggest, as some have done, that any other body - whether the Task Force or some other agency - shares this responsibility.


This conference is an opportunity for you - whether you are a regulator, client, or builder - as parties to the National Strategy, to discuss improving OHS in the industry. I understand a communiqué will be issued at the conclusion of the conference. It should identify specific actions; be linked to current improvement initiatives and include a commitment to reconvene in 12 months to assess progress.

For its part, the Government will be acting to improve OHS on its projects.

Thank you.

For further information contact:

Felicity Dargan Press Secretary 0409 550 446