In April 2008, workplace relations minister Julia Gillard set up the National Review into Model Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Laws to develop a new national OHS standard. The process is called "OHS Harmonisation".
The new laws will replace the varied state and territory laws, and a discussion paper on the draft legislation is expected to be released within the next two weeks.
Frank Fairley, OHS unit coordinator of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union's Victorian branch, told Green Left Weekly he supported standardised laws across Australia but opposed the harmonisation proposals. He said they watered down state regulations Victorian workers had fought hard for.
"The government talks about balance, bringing all the states in line", Fairley said. "Our approach is different. Rather then 'balance', we believe everybody should be brought up to the best possible standards."
In NSW, the new laws would abolish the current right held of unions to prosecute employers over OHS breaches. Fairley said that was very problematic. "The unions' ability to prosecute led to banks installing screens to protect their employees from potentially fatal armed robberies."
Victorian OHS representatives would also see their rights greatly diminished. The state's OHS Act stipulates that representatives get all the rights and powers as soon as they are elected and can choose the time and place of their training.
Under the new laws, the elected OHS representative would be unable to issue Provisional Improvement Notices or direct a "cease-work" until they have completed their training. Fairley said they would still have the right to choose when to undertake training, but they would have to negotiate with their boss, who could delay it.
"If you combine the lesser power of the reps with the right of bosses … to delay training, your outcome will be a toothless tiger", he said.
Fairley said if the harmonisation laws were passed, workplace injuries and deaths would increase. The Australian Building and Construction Commission's presence on work sites, and treatment of OHS representatives, had diminished safety in the building industry, he said.
"Interrogating people over legitimate OHS issues under threat of being jailed if you don't answer questions is simply intimidation", Fairley said.
He highlighted the need for white-collar workers to support the campaign to extend and defend OHS laws. He said they were just as much at risk of injury or death, sometimes through "silent killers", such as chemical hazards or asbestos in offices.
The harmonisation laws would increase penalties on employers for workplace deaths, which Fairley supports. But he warned that unless courts were prepared to impose penalties beyond a token amount, they meant little. He called for industrial manslaughter legislation.
He said: "If somebody can drive down the road in a dangerous way, kill somebody and be charged with culpable driving, why should an employer who deliberately and negligently causes a death of a worker not be charged with manslaughter too?
"Employers are treated more leniently because they make profit, maybe. I believe they should be treated harsher precisely because they are making profit out of a death."