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Safety review causes stir

WHILE the 107 recommendations from the Review of the Occupational Safety and Health Act have proven controversial, review author Bob Laing insists his main aim was to get employers and employees talking about workplace safety.

One of the most controversial recommendations was that appropriately trained, elected safety and health representatives be allowed to issue “safety alerts”.

Another was to make negligent senior officers of corporations accountable for the death or serious injury of employees. It was also recommended that the maximum penalties under the act be increased to reflect penalty levels in other jurisdictions and community expectations.

Mr Laing also recommended that safety in the mining industry be taken from the Department of Mineral and Petroleum Resources and be handed to Worksafe.

The WA Government is yet to consider Mr Laing’s recommendations. The Worksafe WA Commission is considering the recommendations and is expected to make its report to Consumer and Employment Minister John Kobelke by the end of January.

Mr Kobelke and State Development Minister Clive Brown are also considering another report into mining safety. That report is also being written by Mr Laing. The ministers will then take their recommendations, based on what they choose to adopt from the two reports, to cabinet.

A spokesman for Mr Kobelke said the Government hoped to have new workplace safety laws in place this year.

Business groups have voiced concerns that the provisional improvement notices Mr Laing initially proposed would allow unions to control safety and use it as an industrial weapon, particularly in the construction industry.

Mr Laing disagrees, however.

“These safety alerts will only serve to get employers and employees talking about safety,” Mr Laing said.

“Most safety problems need to be sorted out on the job. If the situation escalates then a Worksafe inspector can be called in.”

Under the safety alert recommendation a safety and health representative would be allowed to call in a Worksafe inspector if the problem had not been resolved within three months.

Mr Laing also recommended that “sanctions” apply to any safety and health representative who misused their safety alert power.

However, Unions WA secretary Stephanie Mayman said she believed the safety alerts would be the same as the provisional improvement notices.

Ms Mayman said she also supported moves to bring parts of mining safety under Worksafe’s control.

“Unions fought the battle to bring mining under one act in the 1980s and we lost,” she said.

“Our concern with the department is that it both regulates and promotes the mining industry.”

The mining lobby is bitterly opposed to moving mine safety under another agency.

Chamber of Minerals and Energy chief executive Tim Shanahan said the chamber was opposed to any change in the current bureaucratic structure governing mining.

“Statistics show there has been a consistent improvement in mining safety over the past 10 years,” he said.

“We do agree there are some good elements that Laing has suggested.”

Mr Shanahan is also in favour of national safety regulations for mining, something that is to be discussed by State mining ministers soon.

He also supports moves to bring the risk-based methodology, a quality assurance systems approach to safety used in the petroleum industry, into the mining arena.

Inadequate penalties for senior company officers whose negligence led to a workplace death has long proved a contentious issue.

Mr Laing said he had left penalties up to the Government, particularly for workplace deaths, but felt they should mirror those in other States.

“I have suggested that there needs to be a sentencing regime that makes sure that employers who have done the right thing don’t cop the full extent of the penalty, but conversely clobbers those who have not fulfilled their safety obligations,” he said.

“I suggested a charge of culpable behaviour leading to death.

“Another thing that happens is that when you get a death or a serious injury occurring the agencies do not have a clear idea of who should be investigating it.

“What can happen is there may be culpable behaviour by management but they fall through the net.  The police don’t pick it up because they think it is a Worksafe matter. You don’t get them doing the detailed investigations that they would in a homicide.

“Quite often what will happen in a fatality is a company will admit responsibility but the court is not made aware of how negligent the company actually was. Also, the person who died often gets apportioned a large amount of the blame.”

Ms Mayman said Unions WA supported any suggestion of tougher penalties for workplace deaths.

Mr Laing said he also wanted small and medium-sized businesses to enter into a workplace improvement environment.

“Big business has become fairly conscious of safety and dealt with it well. I can understand why it doesn’t get as much attention with SMEs, given the amount of administrative pressure they are under,” he said.

WA Small Business and Enterprise Association executive director Philip Achurch said SBA surveys indicated many small business operators were unsure of their obligations.

He said all employers should ensure their workplaces were safe and should pay the penalty if their negligence resulted in the death of a worker.

“But it keeps bringing us back to what the responsibilities of the employer are. We have recognised for a number of years that a number of small businesses are not 100 per cent clear on their responsibilities,” Mr Achurch said.

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