A National OH&S System — Is It Out of the Question?

Following the launch of the National Safety Week in October last year, Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) briefly returned to the forefront of the Workplace Relations agenda. Yet speculation remains as to why the issue was somewhat neglected by both political parties in the wake of the Industrial Relations reforms leading up to the Federal election.

With over 140,000 claims in the FY04-05 (data released by the Australian Safety & Compensation Council) that resulted in a workplace injury with an absence from work of one week or more, the issue of injuries in the workplace should be as important as pay and conditions.

We have previously seen the Coalition Government open the way toward a Federal OHS system through the Comcare regime, and extend its operation to cover self-insured private corporations. The Labor Party, on the other hand, has promised to pursue a harmonisation project with the states to implement a national OHS system in phases.

However, the success of such uniformity will ultimately depend on the level of state and territory cooperation as many of the current state and territory OHS frameworks are inconsistent with the federal laws. Employers and other duty holders are required to comply with different safety obligations depending upon which state they operate in.

For example, three such inconsistencies include:

  1. Some jurisdictions contain specific provisions relating to deaths in the workplace and the prosecution of employers, while others do not;
  2. There are different risk assessment and hazard identification obligations depending upon the jurisdiction; and
  3. Maximum penalties for both corporations and individuals differ in each jurisdiction.
With Labor now in power, a new national OHS body will be established which will be independent, non-adversarial, contain representation from both state and federal governments and will play a key role in policy development and research on OHS issues. Labor has also promised to improve claim and return to work assistance for employers, adopt more common laws and align premium processes and procedures.

Now that we're moving toward adopting a national industrial relations system, it is essential that a uniform approach also be taken towards workplace safety to ensure a more simplistic system for national employers so that safety is not compromised in the workplace and workplace injuries and illnesses are minimised. It remains to be seen whether Labor's intentions to create such uniformity will be realised.