National OH&S regime nears

by 17 Mar 2009

A new report tabled by Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard may well form the blueprint for consistent occupational health and safety legislation

Occupational health and safety practitioners are waiting to see how state and territory ministers respond to a report which Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard intends will form the basis of national OH&S laws.

It is understood the model is substantially based on Vic torian OH&S laws, that the proposed national legislation would block unions from launching their own workplace safety prosecutions and that employers, in some states, would have to fund extra leave for worker safety training.

The panel that wrote the report includes former chief executive of the national OH&S commission Robin Stew art-Crompton, WA industrial relations commissioner Stephanie Mayman, and Freehills partner Barry Sheriff.

There is broad consensus that long-sought consistent national OH&S regulations will benefit employees as well as employers, providing that the best of each state system is inte grated into the laws.

University of NSW Professor Michael Quinlan agrees that consistent legislation would be positive, as long as existing stan dards are not diminished by the Workplace Relations Minister’s Council (WRMC).

“If superior legislation is overridden or does not become the standard, I have serious concerns,” he says. “For example, NSW has what I believe to be the best legislation dealing with safety in the clothing and trucking industries – I would not like to see [that] lost in the harmonisation process.

According to a specialist in OH&S law, Holding Redlich senior associate James Schluter, although it is one of the last employment areas to go national, national safety legislation is inevitable. He believes that it should be more of a consultative process and that until now there has not been enough clarity between what is found in different states.

“Duty of care is the most important fundamental issue and getting the balance between duty of care and how it is discharged will be a challenge,” he says.

Meanwhile, Susan Heron, Australian Institute of Man agement Victorian branch CEO, maintains that the most important task for the board and management of a com pany is to provide for the health and safety of employees.

While national OH&S legislation will make it easier for mobile employees working across state boundaries, she says, it will also be good for businesses when it comes to compliance and risk management.

“It should boost productivity across the business and make it easier for companies operating across Australia to achieve better OH&S outcomes,” she says. Heron also believes a national framework will encourage international companies to invest in Australia because it will “reduce the cost and burden of having to adhere to different state OH&S legislation”.

Like Quinlan, Schluter is adamant that differences between states and their safety management resources also need to be considered in the model occupational health and safety legislation.

“For example, NSW has a lot of resources dedicated to safety and a very active inspectorate,” he says. “Some other states do not have the same level of activity and current acts are enforced differently in different states.”

Both Quinlan and Schluter agree the union influence on OH&S in NSW has historically been beneficial, with Quin lan especially adamant that national legislation should pro vide for union influence on workplace safety.

“Unions are not using this power frivolously, as has been sug gested,” Quinlan says. “Historically, they have launched fewer than 20 cases and have won virtually every case they have run. One of the reasons we have security barriers for tellers in banks today is a result of a case pursued by the Finance Sector Union.”