Will a national OHS system lower the bar?


NSW’s hard-won protection for workers is under threat of dilution in the push to ‘harmonise’ Australia’s OHS systems.

The push towards a nationally consistent OHS system will accelerate following the agreement of a new timetable at the recent Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) meeting in Adelaide.

The original timetable, that would have seen work start next year and finish by 2012, has been fast-tracked by COAG’s Business Regulation and Competition Working Group (BRCWG), which intends to establish an intergovernmental agreement by May 2008, with model legislation to be developed and submitted to the Workplace Relations Minister’s Council by September 2009.

Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, announced the review in April, allowing only until the end of May for research and consultation with key stakeholders. The review panel will then invite submissions.

According to NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes, the union is committed to maintaining current standards and is currently providing comment to Unions NSW and the ACTU – its primarily concern at this stage is the time allocated to undertake the work.

‘The timeframe appears far too tight. We can’t see how the review panel can possibly undertake genuine national consultation or deliver well-considered OHS legislation on that schedule,’ said Brett.

‘The NSWNA has no objection to a uniformed approach to OHS in itself, but is concerned that “harmonisation” will be in a downward direction rather than the bar being raised by the other states.’

Brett said NSW currently had the highest OHS standards in Australia, which is reflected in a clear downward trend in workplace accidents and, in 2005, the lowest recorded workplace fatality rate in NSW for 18 years.

‘During the past three years, the Iemma Government has been under increasing pressure from the Federal Government to downgrade its OHS laws in an almost underhanded attempt to create a national system.

‘Throughout that process the NSWNA has actively advocated against any lowering of NSW’s OHS standards, particularly changes that reduce employees’ protections and employers’ responsibility for their workers,’ he said.

The NSW government has indicated it will not stand in the way of the talks, agreeing at a meeting of workplace relations ministers in February to start work on a national review of OHS laws to develop model legislation, including the duties of employers and employees and their defences.