NSW still strong on OHS

NSW OHS laws provide a strong framework to protect workers against the federal government`s attacks on workplace rights

NSW has much to be proud of in occupational health and safety. The state’s laws are the strongest in Australia and the statistics are impressive: the trend in injuries and fatalities has been relentlessly downward over a long period of time. The fatality rate in 2005 was the lowest in 18 years.

At the heart of this success is a simple concept: there are mutual benefits for employers and employees in a safe and healthy workplace.

NSWNA Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda said this isn’t rocket science.

‘It’s obvious that employers save on costs as injuries are prevented, often with the spin-off being greater efficiencies in the workplace. And employees are spared the human costs of injury or sickness,’ she said.

‘A workplace that is safer for staff is also safer for patients. Many facilities have found that when they embraced manual handling equipment, it also led to less injuries to patients such as skin tears and bruising.’

Consultation is a key right
NSW laws are very stringent about the employer’s obligation to consult. The OHS Act 2000 makes it mandatory for employers to consult with employees on OHS matters, with fines of up to $82,500 for failing to do so.

The OHS Act allows for three key vehicles for consultation – OHS committees, OHS representatives and other agreed arrangements.
There is an extensive range of circumstances when employers must consult with employees including when there are proposed changes to premises and systems of work.

There are other OHS rights enshrined in NSW law such the legal right to a safe workplace, the power to conduct OHS inspections available to your union and access to WorkCover’s powers to enforce compliance.

State Liberals say they will undercut protections
While the current OHS laws give good protection in the workplace they will be up for grabs with a change of goverment in NSW.
The federal government has initiated a race to the bottom on OHS with a project to ‘harmonise’ OHS legislation nationally.

Liberal’s leader Peter Debnam was quoted in The Australian (15 May 2006) as saying that a ‘Coalition government in NSW would freeze all workplace safety cases before the state’s industrial court.’

He also said that with a Liberal government unions would lose their rights to prosecute under OHS legislation.

‘Safety is the paramount workplace issue’

For the OHS committee at Nepean Hospital, safety is the paramount workplace issue.

‘Through good organisation and cooperation we’ve achieved some good results that are a win–win for employees and management,’ said Kerry Rodgers.

‘The OHS committee has 18 employee reps and two employer reps – the DON and the support services manager. We meet monthly and every ward and department has a representative. There is a good consultation process with management.

‘As nurses, we realise we need to be organised to achieve things. And if we are not organised it could easily slip away.’
Management learnt from the feedback of the OHS committee, and in one case it led to an investment of $6.2 million on a new emergency department.

‘The old one was too small, overcrowded, out-of-date and unsafe. When we got the win we felt empowered and strong,’ said Kerry.

‘We got another good win after the OHS committee did some research about nurses hurting their backs. This led to an agreement that no new beds would be purchased unless they were electric. No more pump beds. All 18 of us on the OHS committee danced in the corridors after that.’

Strengths of the NSW OHS system

  • Strong legal obligation on employers to consult
  • Legal right to a safe workplace
  • Unions have powers to conduct inspections and to prosecute
  • Access to WorkCover’s powers
  • Worker participation in safety through OHS committees and representatives.

Threats on the horizon

  • Federal government’s plan to ‘harmonise’ OHS nationally – effectively a race to the bottom
  • Peter Debnam’s commitment to water down protections
  • Weak resolve of state government in the face of federal pressure.