New OHS laws threaten nurses’ safety

NSWNA campaigns to prevent degradation of nurses safety in new OHS laws.

The NSWNA has submitted a public response to the draft Model National OHS Bill, in which it expresses support for OHS harmonisation in principle, but voices concern and disappointment about the likely degradation of worker safety in NSW.

Work-related injuries and disease currently cost Australia an estimated $130 billion per year, or 6% of GDP, considerably more than most other OECD countries. In 2007, the health and community services industry was second only to manufacturing in the number of injuries leading to time off work.

‘The harmonisation of OHS laws provides an opportunity to improve workplace health and safety standards nationally and reduce the burden of work-related injury and illness on the Australian community,’ said NSWNA OHS Officer Trish Butrej.

‘Unfortunately, the draft Bill appears to be heavily influenced by industry lobby groups, whose short-sightedness privileges the avoidance of workplace responsibility over embracing the need to lift their OHS performance, resulting in a Bill that threatens to reduce the standards of protection of NSW workers, and diminishes the ability of unions to protect members’ interests.’

Training for health and safety representatives under the draft Bill is only mandatory if the health and safety representative requests it, and there is no requirement to provide training to OHS committee members. Furthermore, workers can be fined up to $300,000 and be jailed for up to five years for failure to protect themselves and their colleagues from workplace-related illness or injury, a penalty that is grossly disproportionate compared to those imposed on directors and corporations, whose maximum fine is limited to $3 million.

Employers’ responsibilities under the draft Bill will be qualified by ‘reasonably practicable’ standards, including the duty to consult with employees on OHS and welfare matters. This will potentially put many nurses at a disadvantage, especially those who work as casuals or contractors, or who do shift work. There is also a risk that because ‘cost’ is included in the legislation as a consideration of what is ‘reasonably practicable’, employers will seek ways to avoid providing nurses with adequate security, equipment, safe staffing levels and a safe and healthy premises.

‘The NSWNA considers that the draft Bill goes against the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) directive that harmonisation should not reduce standards of protection, and we are concerned about how the draft Bill will affect Australian nurses,’ said NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes.

Other concerning aspects of the Bill include the reversal of the onus of proof – which means it will now be up to prosecutors to prove that an employer did not do all that was ‘reasonably practicable’ to protect its workforce – and the loss of unions’ right to prosecute, despite ample evidence that this right has led to improvement in OHS standards since it was introduced in NSW in the 1940s.

‘The NSWNA calls upon its members to write to their local parliamentary member to express their concern about this issue, and sign the ‘Don’t Risk 2nd Rate Safety’ petition on the ACTU website. It is still not too late to stop this draft Bill being legislated, but we must act now,’ said Brett Holmes.