Across the country, the federal and state governments are trying to wind back hard won gains on health and safety. We will shine a light on every one of their attempts at slashing safety.
Cuts to the NSW workers' compensation scheme
Five thousand seriously injured NSW workers have been cut off from weekly payments, and 20,000 workers with long-term injuries have lost coverage for medical treatment, as a direct result of the NSW Liberal Government’s cuts to the State’s workers' compensation scheme.
Cutting funding for union and industry reps on Safe Work Australia
The Federal Government has just announced that it is cutting $1.4m in grants to union and industry representatives on the board of Safe Work Australia, as part of its Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. It is instead channeling $6.9 million over two years to establish a joint federal and state police taskforce into trade union governance and corruption.
It seem that the government would rather tackle trade unions than unsafe workplaces.
Watering down safety codes in the maritime industry
Safe Work Australia is moving a number of Codes of Practice - including stevedoring and diving - to guidance material, meaning that employers will be under less scrutiny and therefore less compelled to provide a safe working environment.
Maritime Union of Australia Assistant National Secretary Warren Smith critised the move saying: “Wharfies remain 14 times more likely to die on-the-job than the average Australian worker. But apparently this statistic doesn’t bother the management of stevedoring companies: Toll, Patrick, Qube and DP World who have, one after another, lined up to put a knife into the Code.”
Watering down of NSW work capacity guidelines.
WorkCover NSW is planning to slash their work capacity guidelines from 40 pages down to just six. The guidelines are used to assess whether and how an injured worker can return to work and their entitlement to weekly benefits.
The new guidelines were developed after a 6-week consultation period with insurers. Unions and injured workers were not consulted prior to the draft text being released. The draft text places few requirements on the insurer to follow a clear and fair process before cutting the benefits of an injured worker.
The move comes off the back of insurers frequently failing to comply with the existing guidelines. Of the 129 applications for procedural review conducted by WorkCover Independent Review Officer, only one decision was in favour of the insurer.
Fair Work Act changes to restrict union right of entry.
The government is seeking to wind back the right of union officials to enter workplaces under the Fair Work (Amendment) Bill before the Senate on Wednesday morning.
If passed, the law would narrow the circumstances when a union official can enter a worksite, and remove their right to hold discussions in lunch or meal rooms. It would also remove the obligation on employers to facilitate transport and accommodation for union officials at remote work sites, typically in mining and construction.
The government is pushing the changes because of employer claims of "excessive workplace visits and unnecessary disruptions at some workplaces” by unions. It's Regulation Impact Statement makes no attempt to measure the benefits of union right of entry, despite these being well documented, especially on health and safety.
Funding cut for Ethical Clothing Australia
The federal government has cancelled its $1 million grant to Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) – the multi-stakeholder body that seeks to lift the working conditions of an estimated 6,000 home workers in Australia’s clothing industry.
ECA, which relied on federal support for the majority of it's funding, requires company members to undergo a comprehensive occupational health and safety audit of their business and supply chain - to protect some of the most vulnerable workers in the country. ECA's future is uncertain.
Safe Work Australia could be abolished.
Tony Abbott’s Commission of Audit has recommended “consolidating” Safe Work Australia, the national health and safety body, into the Department of Employment.
Safe Work Australia has been an independent statutory body since 2009, run by representatives from across state and federal governments, as well as unions and industry. Its merger into a government department would see it lose its independence, and most probably its staffing levels and other resources.
The Abbott government has not ruled out this Commission recommendation, handed down in early May.
Workers risk huge fines for acting on health and safety under ABCC Bill.
If re-established, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) would dramatically increase the penalties on workers and their unions for taking action on health and safety that falls outside the narrow legal definition “protected action”.
A worker may be fined up to $34,000 plus be forced to cover an employer’s economic loss for taking unprotected industrial action. The union could be fined up to $170,000 as well as also being forced to cover any loss to the employer.
The Bill will be voted on in the Senate in the coming weeks and will cover workers in the construction, maritime and transport industries. If passed, workers and their unions will have to weigh up the risk of facing these huge fines against the seriousness of any threat to health and safety. The ABCC will have a key role in deciding whether action taken is as a result of health and safety considerations.
A recent Senate report into the Bill criticised it for "politicising [health and safety] in a very dangerous industry".
Victorian safety inspectors advised to call the police on union officials
Victorian WorkCover inspectors and employers have been instructed by the Victorian government to restrict union officials from investigating safety complaints. Guidance issued in July orders inspectors to block health and safety experts from work sites if they are union officials and do not hold a federal right-of-entry permit. In such circumstances “Unauthorised entries should be treated as trespass.” states the guidance. “If there is a refusal to leave, the police should be called.”
This is despite Victorian safety laws allowing anyone - including union officials - to be invited on site to deal with reported safety breaches.
Reducing the powers of Queensland mine safety inspectors.
The Queensland government is proposing to weaken the legal powers of industry check inspectors and mineworker-elected health and safety representatives in coal mining. The government is also proposing to weaken the Coal Mine Workers’ Health Scheme by reducing its remit from covering all workplace health issues to a narrower focus on dust and noise issues.
Sadly 11 miners have already lost their lives at work in Australia this year.
Victoria's timber licensing system to become voluntary
Last year the Victorian government passed a law to remove the requirement for a worker in a native forest to hold a Timber Harvesting Operator License issued by the Department of Environment and Primary Industries. This compulsory license requires the worker to understand and adhere to safety and environmental standards. The government is instead encouraging a voluntary, industry-led approach to licensing in one of the most dangerous sectors to work in.
Letting company directors off the hook
The Abbott government is considering weakening the legal duties of company directors. If passed such laws would made it much harder for victims of company negligence to hold company directors to account. Fairfax media speculate that had such laws been in place earlier, this "may have seen the directors of James Hardie escape prosecution." The ACTU estimates that half of all asbestos-related legal claims are against James Hardie.
Letting any national employer join Comcare
The federal government is legislating to open up Comcare – the workplace compensation scheme set up to cover public servants- to all national employers. Yet Comcare is poorly equipped to regulate health and safety in dangerous industries. Currently the only construction company covered by Comcare is John Holland which has one of the worst records for workplace deaths in the sector since joining the scheme in 2007.
Federal government consults to restrict health and safety powers of union officials and workplace reps
Federal and state governments have announced a two week consultation period over proposals to restrict the power of union officials and health and safety representatives (HSRs) under the model Work Health and Safety Laws. Following the recent changes in Queensland, the proposals seeks to introduce a 24-hour notice requirement before a union official can entry a workplace to investigate a health and safety incident, or a HSR can request the assistance of someone. It also proposes removing the power of HSRs to direct unsafe work to cease.
The consultation paper makes no attempt to quantify the health and safety benefits of union work, other than implying it is a "regulatory burden".
Bullying rife at NSW agency to tackle bullying
A cross-party parliamentary committee released a damning report which found that bullying is rife at WorkCover NSW. The committee called for independent oversight of the agency, as well as statewide anti-bullying laws.
Calls to scrap the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency
Tony Abbott’s Commission of Audit called for the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency to be scrapped, despite Australia having the highest rate of asbestos-related disease in the world. The Federal Government has yet to rule out axing the agency.
Worksafe Victoria goes silent on guilty employers
WorkSafe Victoria has quietly stopped issuing press releases whenever companies are prosecuted for safety breaches – a key tool in promoting workplace safety and holding rogue employers to account.
Health and safety entry permit holders blocked from Queensland workplaces for 24 hours after an incident
In Queensland, a Workplace Health and Safety entry permit holder must now give at least 24 hours’ notice before entering a workplace to look into a suspected breach of health and safety laws. The new laws, which came into effect on 16 May 2014, also remove the power of health and safety reps to direct workers to cease unsafe work, and require them to give 24 hours’ notice to bring in another person to assist on site. The laws also double the penalties for non-compliance with health and safety entry permit conditions to $20,000.