THE AUSTRALIAN Chamber of Commerce and Industry last week angered workers unions in announcing its blueprint on occupational health and safety laws, that “share the employers’ national vision for Australia’s OHS system”, on the annual memorial day for workers killed on the job.
Some of Australia’s occupational health and safety (OHS) laws and court decisions are straight out of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, according to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI). “They reek of employers being liable out of convenience or retribution, irrespective of commonsense,” said Chief Executive Peter Hendy.
The blueprint, Modern Workplace: Safer Workplace is an effort to help the business community to take leadership on OHS issues at all levels. It proposes to overhaul the current system of OHS law and policy.
Many employers, particularly in small to medium businesses, find OHS laws and regulations to be complex, bureaucratic, difficult to understand and almost impossible to implement, said Hendy. “There is excessive growth of OHS regulation and red tape,” he said.
Hendy criticised some legislation and court decisions for a lack of balance. “The trend across jurisdictions has been to broaden legal duties beyond reasonable limits, increase penalties, extend liability to individuals in the management and supply chain and seek to punish rather than prevent,” he said.
Angering the Victorian branch of the ACTU, the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC), however, was that the ACCI’s announcement fell on the same day workers stopped to mourn the “thousands of workers injured each year and tragically killed”, said VTHC president Michele O’Neil. For the blueprint to be announced on the same day, said O’Neil, “is shocking”.
But the ACCI dismissed the unions’ concerns about the timing of the blueprint, pointing out that in fact the day to which they refer is the international day for safety at work. A spokesperson for the ACCI told Lawyers Weekly that the press had not acknowledged this fact, but had accepted the union line. It just so happens, he said, that unions have also chosen this day for the national day of mourning. He rejected suggestions that the ACCI had chosen this day in an effort to rile the unions.
But the VTHC was also concerned about the blueprint itself. “It is suggested that somehow responsibility lies equally with employees as employers, and this is a direction that we would oppose because it is not a case that workers have a decision making capacity to affect change that makes the workplace safer,” she said. “This is unacceptable.”
Modern Workplace: Safer Workplace was developed by Australia’s State and Territory chambers of commerce and leading national industry organisations, which represent more than 350,000 businesses employing more than four million people.
The ACCI claimed that the priority it and employer organisations is giving to OHS is a reflection of a heightened commitment of industry to OHS. ACCI is circulating the blueprint across the Australian community and internationally. ACCI member employer associations will be communicating the key messages of the OHS Blueprint into Australian workplaces, in industry sectors and to local politicians, policy makers and regulators.