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WHS: How well does your organisation measure up?

Most employers think that are up to scratch when it come to WHS, but research indicates that there are certain areas where they are lacking.

In a positive workplace safety culture, everyone accepts personal responsibility for ensuring their health and safety and that of others. Supervisors and managers see health and safety as important and the things they do demonstrate their commitment to health and safety. That’s not my definition, this comes from Safe Work Australia (SWA).

Most employers think they are doing a pretty good job when it comes to managing workplace health and safety (WHS), says an SWA report from 2016. However the study shows that between 10 to 20 per cent of employers did not display management safety empowerment frequently in their business. A quarter didn’t demonstrate aspects of management safety justice and half did not collect information regarding incident investigations frequently. So, perhaps, there’s a gap between perception and reality here.

On the employee side, there also appears to be growing pressure not to rock the boat by reporting fears over workplace safety breaches. Shine Lawyers spoke to the ABC recently about a survey they conducted after a noticeable increase in people coming to them to seek advice about injuries sustained at work, or complaints of safety issues. In a national survey of 2,000 workers, they found that one in five said they made a safety complaint that wasn’t fixed and one in 10 workers were afraid to report a safety concern because they were worried they would lose their job.

Besides being unethical, this is short-sighted from a purely business perspective. In 2014, SWA commissioned the Centre for Workplace Leadership at Melbourne University to summarise the evidence that performance is improved when organisations address WHS risks along with other important business risks. Put that against the cost to business of $1.6 billion for work-related injuries (from 2012-13), or $4350 unit cost per incident, and you get a sense of how everyone is losing out by ignoring duty of care towards employees.

Transport industry: case study

Transport and vehicle collision is, consistently, one of the chief causes of worker fatalities. While workplace fatalities are, thankfully, on a downward trend, the industry is an interesting case study due to the fact that much of the work is contracted out.

Using contracted workers is not an excuse for businesses to wash their hands of responsibility for WHS. In a couple of months’ time, there are changes to the Chain of Responsibility (CoR) laws coming into effect that will align more closely with WHS legislation.

Recently, the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator outlined four key areas of responsibility for primary producers that contract transport services to other operators under the new WHS-style chain-of-responsibility (CoR) laws.

The regulator says these primary producers must:

  • avoid written or verbal requests, instructions, requirements or demands that could encourage a heavy vehicle driver to speed or drive while fatigued;
  • ensure stock are ready to load on time so that drivers aren’t unduly delayed and pressured to speed or breach fatigue rules;
  • ensure drivers can safely access the relevant premises and are advised of relevant local conditions and other issues; and
  • consult with the transporter and other parties in the CoR when setting timeframes for pickups and deliveries.

In addition, the Federal Opposition has confirmed that it is considering a Safe Rates-style regime for the heavy vehicle sector. Shadow Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Brendan O’Connor says Labor is examining options “for regulation that will take into account the correlation between wages, conditions and the safety of drivers and the general public”.

As a background to this, a few may recall the short-lived Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. Its first minimum payments order – aimed at ensuring contract drivers didn’t have a financial incentive to speed, drive while fatigued or forego maintenance – began in April 2016, but the system was scrapped by the Turnbull government less than two weeks later.

The tribunal order had “pushed tens of thousands of owner-drivers, many of whom are small and family businesses, to the brink of collapse by rendering them uncompetitive with big trucking companies”, claimed Federal Workplace Minister Craig Laundy.

“Labor opposed the abolition of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal because we understood its important role in reducing the likelihood of people dying on our roads,” countered O’Connor.

It’s another example of what happens when workers safety issues run counter to the needs of business owners, be they large or small, which as a society we have been tackling since we sent children up chimneys to sweep soot – and even further back. Where does HR stand on this issue? HRM would be keen to hear your thoughts.

Better understand the duties and responsibilities of employers and employees in ensuring a safe work environment with the AHRI short course ‘Workplace Health and Safety’.

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