Less healthy and less safe


Experts agree the federal government`s IR changes will lead to less safe and less healthy workplaces

John Howard’s new IR laws are not only likely to make us poorer and less secure, they could make us sicker, too.

Professor Michael Quinlan, a professor in the School of Organisation and Management at the University of NSW, believes there is clear evidence the shift to greater job insecurity resulting from the new laws will lead to a further deterioration in workplace health and safety.

‘Historically, award provisions on minimum wages, maximum hours, rest breaks, call back times and a host of other matters set a floor for working conditions that were critical to the protection of worker health, safety and wellbeing,’ he said.

‘OHS laws rested on this foundation and this foundation has now been severely undermined.’

A major fear held by OHS experts is the increase in employer power and the restrictions on union activity that underpin the new IR laws will undermine the spirit of cooperation which is central to healthy workplaces.

‘There is substantial evidence unions play positive roles in relation to OHS. Unions provide the critical logistical sup-port for employee health and safety representatives, who are mostly confined to union workplaces,’ said Professor Quinlan.

Professor Quinlan also identifies the ‘fear factor’ in workplaces with unfettered employer control as an emerging problem.

‘Most OHS inspectors already see worker fear of victimisation as a serious inhibitor on problem reporting.’

Professor Quinlan believes the greatly reduced role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission will impact on health and safety.

‘It will be harder for unions to run OHS cases regarding changed work systems – such as staffing levels or safe and reasonable workloads for nurses,’ he said.

If Howard has his way the onus will fall on workers
A legal case in Victoria involving the country’s largest child care operator, ABC Learning, gives a pointer as to how some employers are aiming to transfer the full responsibility for workplace safety on to their employees.

ABC was fined $200 after a child scaled a fence at one of its centres in Melbourne. The company argued it wasn’t to blame and that total responsibility rested with the employees on duty at the time.

‘If this had gone through saying the provider is not responsible, well then you have to ask, who is? – and staff need to be protected against things going wrong over which they have no control,’ Lynne Wannan from the Children’s Services Association told the 7.30 Report.

The Howard government’s new IR laws, while providing space for action over OHS issues still, to some extent appear to codify this shift in responsibility.

‘The Workplace Relations Act retains exemption for stop work over imminent OHS risk but the onus is now on the union or employees to prove these concerns were reasonable,’ said Professor Quinlan.

Safety is everybody’s business
NSWNA Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda said that no matter what vicious laws the federal government concocts, employees now covered by the federal system still have it within their power to contribute to a safe workplace.

‘There are still other channels to organise for safety – through your union branch, your OHS representative and OHS committee and your workloads committee. And, most important, just by being aware and vigilant,’ she said.

‘Employees have a responsibility to report risks to the employer and they have obligations to comply with health and safety regulations. And employers need to cooperate with employees to make the workplace safe. Consultation is part of the law.

‘We hold real fears the federal government’s IR changes will do a lot of damage to people’s health and safety at work. The trends, for some time, have been towards less workplace injuries because of the stringent laws, particularly in NSW. We don’t want those trends reversed because of reduced standards.’

Stop press

NSW refuses race to bottom on OHS
As The Lamp goes to press, the NSW government has suspended negotiations with the federal government about national OHS laws.
NSW Minister for Industrial Relations John Della Bosca said the Commonwealth had reneged on an agreement with the states, unilaterally dumping a set of principles that had been the basis of talks on harmonisation. One of these principles outlines a tripartite approach between government, unions and employers, while a second assured that existing conditions would not be reduced.
‘Lives are at stake and families need to be protected in the workplace,’ he said.
‘We must have a degree of consensus and a balanced approach before any changes are made to NSW laws.’

Red alert on workplace health & safety
How the federal IR laws could make our workplaces less healthy:

  • Understaffing and work intensification will adversely impact on health
  • Employees will be afraid to refuse work or take sick leave for fear of losing their job or put in a workers’ compensation claim
  • It will be impossible for unions to run test cases relating to OHS
  • Victimisation will inhibit reporting of safety problems
  • Injured workers will be at greater risk of unfair dismissal
  • Risks will extend to the community eg. to patients through errors in healthcare.