Keeping Our Workers Safe
Safe Work Australia
The establishment of Safe Work Australia was provided for in the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety (the IGA) and agreed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) on 3 July 2008.
The main focus of Safe Work Australia since its establishment has been the development of model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws. In October this year, Safe Work Australia launched the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022. Other key initiatives of the agency are national Safe Work Australia Week, coordinating and developing national policy and strategies, undertaking research, and collecting, analysing and reporting data.
The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy
The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022 (Australian Strategy) provides a ten year framework to continue improving work health and safety across Australia. It aims to drive key national and collaborative activities by regulators, industry, unions, other organisations and all levels of government to achieve the vision of healthy, safe and productive working lives.
Two key principles underpin the Australian Strategy: first, that all workers have the right to a healthy and safe workplace; second, that well-designed, healthy and safe work leads to more productive working lives.
The Australian Strategy builds on the previous National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy 2002-2012, under which significant progress was made to improve work health and safety. This progress includes the incidence rate (claims per 1000 workers) of injury and musculoskeletal claims dropping by 28 per cent between the base period (2000-01 to 2002-03) and 2010-11, and the incidence rate of compensated fatalities from injury and musculoskeletal disorders falling by 47 per cent over the same period. This is more than double the target set out in the National OHS Strategy for fatality reduction.
It is hoped that collective and sustained national effort under each of the seven Action Areas and in the priority industries and diseases identified in the Australian Strategy will continue to reduce the number of Australians killed, injured or made ill by work each year.
The Model Work Health and Safety Laws
The Commonwealth, states and territories are responsible for developing and enforcing their own work health and safety laws. While these laws all take a similar approach to regulating workplaces, various details of the law and its application differ from state to state. Not only does this increase the chances of someone falling through the cracks, it also introduces challenges for businesses that operate nationally because they must navigate multiple regulations.
The goal of harmonising Australia’s work health and safety laws is to reduce regulatory burden for businesses operating across borders, create equitable safety standards for all workers and improve efficiencies for governments. Ultimately this will help to reduce the incidence of work related injury, illness, and death in Australia.
Significant effort has already been made over the last two decades to bring consistency to Australia’s work health and safety regulations, particularly through the development of National Standards and Codes of Practice. Governments, however, were under no binding obligation to adopt them.
Now this important issue is being addressed via the IGA where for the first time the Commonwealth, state, and territory governments have formally committed to harmonising their work health and safety laws by adopting model legislation consisting of a model WHS Act, supporting regulations and codes of practice.
A comprehensive national review was conducted by an independent panel along with substantial public consultation to best determine what a model act should entail. A key focus of the review was to ensure that the new laws captured the wide range of employment arrangements in place today.
“There is not [just] the standard employer-employee relationship anymore,” explains Julia Collins, Director of Implementation and Review. “You’ve got so many different types of employment arrangements nowadays. In previous laws [that] were aligned on employee-employer duties, people were falling through the cracks.”
Therefore one of the key reforms of the model Work Health and Safety Act is to introduce a clearer understanding of who is responsible for workplace safety and who is protected by the regulations. The duty to protect workers will fall to the ‘person conducting a business or undertaking,’ with the definition of ‘person’ being either an individual or a company. The definition of a ‘worker’ has also broadened to cover far more than just an employee and now includes volunteers, people on work experience, and apprentices.
The laws now “clearly put the duty on those who create the risk,” Ms Collins says. The Act also includes a positive duty for ‘officers’ of corporations to exercise ‘due diligence,’ which places more responsibility on people at the leadership level such as CEOs and board members who make strategic decisions affecting health and safety.
Of course the new act will be of little impact if it is inadequately or inconsistently enforced. For this reason Safe Work Australia has also developed a national compliance and enforcement policy that lays out how, and under what circumstances, the regulators will use the available compliance and enforcement tools.
Safe Work Australia Week
“Safety begins with ‘S’ but starts with YOU” was the theme for this year’s Safe Work Australia Week. The statement serves as an important reminder that every worker shares a responsibility to promote safety. “It doesn’t matter whether you are the CEO or an entry level worker, it is up to you to start improving safety,” Safe Work Australia Chair Tom Phillips insists in a related press release.
Safe Work Australia Week ran from 21st -27th October of this year and was aimed at encouraging all working Australians to focus on improving health and safety on the job in order to reduce death, injury and disease. Although the annual event only covers one week each year at the national level, the program is intended to encourage Australian workers to maintain safety as a priority all of the time.
Safe Work Australia Week gives workplaces an opportunity to plan and implement improvements to their health and safety. The Week also encourages workers to become Safety Ambassadors in their workplaces. Any level worker can fill this role as long as they are passionate about improving workplace safety. Safety Ambassadors lead by example and motivate their workplaces to get involved with Safe Work Australia Week. The Safety Ambassador of the Year Award is awarded annually in recognition of Safety Ambassadors who have successfully led workplace safety throughout the previous year.
On 31 October, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the Hon Bill Shorten MP announced Jacinta Macaulay from Ron Finemore Transport as the 2012 Safety Ambassador of the Year.
Safety: A Priority for the Future
The number of work related injuries and fatalities in Australia has steadily decreased over the past decade. Collaboration has been a crucial factor in this improvement and the country can congratulate itself on successfully working together to vastly improve work health and safety. There is “a long history in [Australia] of pulling together all the different jurisdictions and social partners and working together,” Ms Collins points out.
But Safe Work Australia still isn’t satisfied with current statistics. Instead Safe Work Australia is determined to make working lives even safer and more productive. “Major progress has been made, but clearly we still have far too high a fatality rate and far too high an injury rate. So we still need a national strategy and a harmonised approach to target those areas that we need to work on over the next ten years.”
Through the cooperation of industry, regulators, unions, and governments working together, the necessary strategy and approach is currently being implemented, and the nation-wide goal of a healthy working environment is being achieved.