Attack on occupational health and safety in WA


By Stephen Robson

PERTH — The Court Liberal government is attempting to dismantle the infrastructure that has been built up in the last decade to resolve occupational health and safety issues. The aim of the changes will be to shift more power into the hands of employers, directly and indirectly.

The legislation has already been introduced into parliament with the government expecting the bill to be passed before the end of the year.

Legislation introduced by the Labor government in 1984 was based on the Robens principles, an extensive report into occupational health and safety in Britain. These principles, based on an open, consultative process, differentiated between health and safety issues and industrial disputes "so the emphasis is placed on resolution of health and safety issues at the workplace level by a consultative mechanism" between workplace representatives and the employers.

The new legislation "is clearly intended to roll those principles back", explained Tony Cooke, assistant secretary of the WA Trades and Labour Council.

Before 1984, the only avenue open to unions to resolve many of these issues was through industrial action. For unions with a strong militant tradition, this may have been effective, but for other unions, the network of occupational health and safety representatives, while not excluding industrial action, did allow for many more issues to be resolved in the workplace.

Where they were able to push issues through these bodies, union members got a sense of their own strength as they began to put an end to unsafe conditions.

The new bill will affect workers covered by both state and federal awards and is similar to steps taken by the Kennett government in Victoria.

Cooke told Green Left Weekly that the Court government had collaborated closely with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "The intention is to shift the power and position clearly in favour of employers and to rely on a range of direct and indirect mechanisms to make health and safety issues more remote from work forces and more difficult to address."

The legislation will:

  • Narrow the scope of what is considered a health and safety issue. For example, references to "welfare" will be removed from the act, meaning that the provision of facilities and amenities will be at the whim of the employers and what industrial pressure can be brought to bear.

  • Undermine the structures that allow union input. Employers will have greater power to determine what is a workplace, the number of representatives required and the location and training of these representatives. "Theoretically, under this legislation it will be possible for a building company to have one health and safety committee centrally located to deal with the work force of many thousands of people employed in hundreds of building sites", Cooke noted.

  • Impose secret ballots run by the State Electoral Commission, in place of health and safety reps being elected in the workplace. This is particularly unrealistic for the many small workplaces, and is probably designed to deter electing representatives. The WA Trades and Labour Council estimates that over 80% of WA workers are employed in workplaces of 20 or fewer employees.

  • Tie up the issues in the courts. Enforcement of rules and imposition of penalties is placed in the hands of occupational health and safety magistrates.

At present an OH&S issue may be dealt with in the workplace, and if not resolved there it may be taken up through the Industrial Relations Commission. Under the proposed legislation, a magistrate will hear each individual complaint, rather than a collective complaint. The effect will be increased delays and exorbitant costs.

Penalties can be imposed by the magistrate. A worker or self-employed person may be fined up to $5000 for not following the course laid out in the act. The TLC considers this unfair since "these individuals have very limited ability to influence systems of work".

Employers can be fined up to $25,000. This may be for unsafe work practices but could also be applied to the resolution of a dispute. Cooke points out that fines could be applied to employers and workers "who reach agreement without first having gone to a magistrate".

The legislation will increase the pressure on departmental inspectors without any significant increase in resources, training or support.

The state government will also be able to increase its influence on the Worksafe commission through the appointment of the commissioner and the state minister being given the power to direct the commission.

Despite the overall reactionary thrust, there are some positive changes. The act will now extend coverage to apprentices and trainees. There is also some improvement in protecting health and safety representatives from discrimination.

The TLC has launched a campaign against the bill and called a rally outside Parliament House at 12.30pm on November 16.