Action needed for health and safety

New national OHS laws are being drafted and members are strongly encouraged to be active in campaigns to ensure they improve rather than diminish workers’ right to a safe working environment.

Reports handed down by the National OHS Legislation Review Panel as part of the process for harmonising OHS laws across Australia reveal that workers may lose important OHS protections if recommendations are adopted.

The NSWNA believes nurses are entitled to the highest possible standards of protection of their health and safety at work. Members are strongly encouraged to be vigilant of the threats to their rights and be active in campaigns to make sure that the new national laws, scheduled to be drafted in June 2009 and fully implemented in 2011, improve rather than diminish workers’ right to a safe working environment.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) established the OHS Review Panel with the aim of reducing the burden of legislation on industry, while safeguarding workers’ ‘legitimate safety concerns’. Submissions were subsequently considered from unions and employer groups, the latter having long lobbied for OHS harmonisation to save on red tape.

At a 2008 workplace health and safety event, the Australian Industry Group said: ‘It is often suggested that OHS should be the top priority. While this is a worthy ideal every organisation should strive for, the reality is that making a profit will always be the highest priority of a business.’

But research suggests that OHS makes good business sense. Occupational injury and disease costs the Australian economy $35 billion a year, or 5% of GDP, and it’s estimated that only 3% of the total cost is borne by employers – workers and the community carry the other 97%.

Of course, there is more than money at stake. According to Access Economics, as many as 8000 Australians die each year from work-related incidents or illnesses. That means 21 deaths every day. Unsafe Australian workplaces are the cause of 689,500 injuries and illnesses annually.

To improve this, the NSWNA, together with the ACTU and Unions NSW, is lobbying for laws that protect workers. We believe that harmonised OHS laws should place the burden of proof on employers when workplace safety breaches result in injury or illness, and that elected health and safety representatives (HSRs) should have powers and protection to make workplaces safer.

However, OHS experts attending a two-day meeting in Sydney have raised serious concerns following the OHS Review Panel’s reports on the harmonisation process.

‘Employees in a wide range of workplaces across Australia stand to lose important protections if the panel report is accepted,’ said ACTU Assistant Secretary Geoff Fary.

Of particular concern is the undemocratic requirement that HSRs must have specific qualifications, which would turn them into ‘pseudo-professionals’ and require them to take out indemnity insurance.

The NSWNA believes the Panel’s proposed provisions around HSRs would act as a significant disincentive for workers to undertake the role.

Successful prosecutions of unsafe work practices are also likely to become more difficult if the report’s recommendations are accepted, given that the onus of proof will be borne by the plaintiff, rather than the employer, and unions will be unable to prosecute.

The Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council (WRMC) will meet on 3 April to advance the OHS harmonisation process. The new national legislation will affect all nurses, and the NSWNA encourages its members to lobby government for worker-friendly legislation.

Why is Workplace health & safety at risk?

The Review Panel’s reports, the second of which became public mid-February, were a great disappointment to unions, especially in NSW where we have some of Australia’s best OHS legislation. If the Panel’s recommendations are adopted, there will be a significant reduction in OHS standards in NSW.

The Panel has recommended:

  • A duty of care based on reason–able practicability (NSW has an absolute duty);
  • Prosecutor to bear the onus of proof – that is – the prosecutor would have to prove that the employer did not do all that was reasonably practicable. (Unions are lobbying for the onus of proof to be placed on the employer);
  • No union right to prosecute;
  • Reduced union rights of entry with respect to OHS;
  • Changes to HSR’s powers and functions. For example, they can be held accountable and dismissed from their role, and there is a lack of clarity as to who is to pay for their training. The NSWNA is of the view that these changes will deter employees from being willing to take on the HSR role. (The attack on HSRs makes unions’ request, as laid out in union submissions, for union officers to be given the right to issue provisional improvement notices all the more important);
  • Requirement for the employer to consult on OHS matters reduced to ‘as reasonably necessary’ instead of being mandatory.

What you can do

The NSWNA encourages all its branches and individual members to lobby government for worker-friendly national OHS legislation. We can’t afford to lose skilled workers due to injury or illness, especially during the current economic crisis. It is important to create a community groundswell of opposition to the OHS Review Panel’s current recommendations. Actions that members can take include:

  • Sign the petition on the ACTU website (www.actu.asn.au/HealthSafety/Campaigns/ HighestStandardsforHarmonisedOHSLawsPetition.aspx);
  • Letters to newspapers;
  • Letters to politicians;
  • Branch delegations to meet with local politicians;
  • Phone calls to talk-back radio programs.