An internal survey at SafeWork NSW has revealed an alarming level of political interference in the work of safety inspectors that is potentially putting workers' wellbeing — and lives — at risk.
The results of the survey, conducted by the Public Service Association in late 2020, back up findings by the NSW Ombudsman that inspectors have, on a number of occasions, been unlawfully pressured by directors to issue notices due to media and political influence.
In response, inspectors are demanding SafeWork NSW regain its political independence so they can best carry out their job — protecting workers’ health and safety.
SafeWork NSW is responsible for regulating workplace health and safety in the state. It is meant to operate as an independent statutory authority, to ensure inspectors can objectively investigate workplaces, enforce relevant health and safety laws, and issue safety notices as required.
However, according to the results of an internal survey obtained by Green Left, close to 40% of inspectors who responded said they had been pressured not to issue a notice, despite having evidence and the reasonable belief that such a notice was warranted. This included one case in which someone died, and several deemed to involve “serious incidents”.
Almost 50% said they had been pressured or directed by a manager or director “to issue a notice in circumstances when [they] did not hold the evidence or reasonable belief to do so”.
One in five said they had “been directed/pressured by a manager/director not to undertake a workplace inspection to avoid any potential compliance action” against an employer. A similar number said they had been told “not to undertake a follow up site inspection to verify compliance with a notice”.
In answer to the question “Have you ever been directed/pressured by a manager/director to close down a request for service or incident as ‘no further action’ required, against your own recommendations”, 38% answered positively.
Concerningly, 42% said they had been instructed or pressured to recommend no further action be taken in cases when they had found enough evidence to recommend prosecution.
Inspectors believe such directions were often the result of political interference from the state government or local, state or federal politicians. Some pointed the finger at managers, directors of other government agencies and the media as sources of pressure.
Close to 40% replied yes to the statement that they had “received a change in direction of how to handle a matter following an enquiry from a minister, another government department, union involvement, media or other external factors”.
In the report, the NSW Ombudsman states: “Workers, employers and the community rely on SafeWork to make enforcement decisions and actions that are based on professional expertise, evidence and relevant standards”.
It argued this is even “more critical” when dealing with asbestos. “Where risks such as asbestos raise legitimate and significant community concerns, it is even more critical that a regulator acts in a rigorous, consistent and proportionate manner” and “in accordance with its legislative powers, with decisions made on the basis of relevant standards and the best available evidence.”
The report, however, “identified a number of occasions where SafeWork’s compliance notices were issued contrary to law”. Despite not holding “the reasonable belief that is required under legislation”, the report found inspectors had issued notices “because they were directed to do so.”
This was in large part due to pressure applied by 2GB talkback shock jock Ray Hadley, who has waged a longstanding campaign against the Labor-run Blue Mountains City Council (BMCC).
Hadley raised the issue of the BMCC’s handling of asbestos more than 30 times over a three month period. He also invited Matt Kean, then-Liberal Minister for Better Regulation, on to his program to discuss the issue and SafeWork NSW’s handling of it.
When Hadley stated his dissatisfaction with the findings of the SafeWork NSW inspectors that had visited one of the sites, Kean agreed. The minister went on to say he would re-send inspectors and even threatened to suspend the council.
In the wake of these comments, the new inspector issued a notice to the site in question, despite no new evidence suggesting a different course of action was required.
The report found that during this period of intense media scrutiny on BMCC, 43 notices were served on the local council, representing 93% of the 46 notices issued to all councils in the 2017–18 financial year.
The NSW Ombudsman report makes it clear that SafeWork NSW and its inspectors were placed under undue pressure from directors as a result of the media campaign and the minister’s comments.
Given this, the NSW Ombudsman's report said the incidents “highlighted a need to strengthen the independence of [SafeWork NSW] to ensure the compliance actions it takes are free from irrelevant considerations caused by external factors”.
A motion passed in November by a meeting of Public Sector Association Safety Inspector Vocational Group echoed this sentiment. It reads: “To secure the health & safety of workers and workplaces in NSW, the Inspectors Vocational group demand that SafeWork NSW be reinstated as an Independent Statutory Authority as a matter of urgency to ensure the Inspectorate can function independently without political interference and interference from any NSW government representative.”