Rights of inspections

By Kylie Wilson-Field, Journalist
Tuesday, 20 March, 2007

Like them or hate them, workplace inspectors are a necessary part of workplace practice in Australia. Their primary role is to visit workplaces and check for compliance with the state's health and safety laws as well as provide information to the employer or health and safety representatives on how they can comply with legislation.

It's a difficult job at times and while some officers have been physically attacked or threatened, these cases are rare. More often than not their role is to help prevent accidents or death occurring. In many cases, employers have found that apart from the benefit obtained by improving safety, efficiency has been improved and costs reduced.

In some states, like Victoria and South Australia, inspectors have powers under that state OHS Act, enabling them to enter workplaces in the performance of their duties.

In the day-to-day operation of worksites, inspectors can frequently make appointments to ensure appropriate people are on site to see them. They can ask questions, take notes, photographs/videos and take samples if necessary.

Inspections are often the result of a complaint, notified incident, injury, fatality, dangerous occurrence or can be part of a compliance strategy. Inspections are planned and targeted with inspectors often arriving unannounced.

In a recent case in South Australia, the owner of a property development company was prosecuted for seizing the camera from two SafeWork inspectors when they attempted to take photographs of the work site.

The inspectors fled the site when they saw three males approaching them and were forced to contact the police. The courts found the complaint was beyond reasonable doubt and a penalty against the property developer is pending.

According to Juanita Lovatt, director of field and frontline services at SafeWork SA, the role of the inspector is to ensure compliance and enforcement with legislation.

"Administering and enforcing legislation means that inspectors can unfortunately be exposed to undesirable client behaviour, which may include verbal abuse, intimidation or physical violence," she says.

"SafeWork SA takes its responsibility to manage, monitor and control the possibility of these incidents eventuating very seriously. Ensuring that inspectors are protected from unnecessary risk and minimising the impact exposure to abusive or aggressive clients is a top priority," she says, adding that SafeWork SA has in place an Employee Security - Safe Work Practice policy that outlines the steps to be followed by inspectors when confronted by difficult clients.

Lovatt says that in addition to this policy, inspectors receive practical training in what to do when met with hostility or abuse during work site visits.

"Other strategies may include such measures as inspectors being accompanied by police officers while continuing their investigation at a work site," she says.

Interfering with an inspector's work can incur substantial costs, which was the case for two Victorian workers when they grabbed a camera from an inspector and forcibly removed the film, throwing it into a nearby trench and using an excavator to backfill it.

Incidents like this are rare on work sites, but more often than not magistrates will see such interference as undermining the 'vital role' inspectors play in ensuring people are not injured or killed at work.

WorkSafe Victoria operates under a strategy called Constructive Compliance, which focuses on prevention and aims to build relationships through a range of stakeholder groups including government departments, unions and employer groups. They believe that getting groups like this 'on board' greatly helps with their work.

"We have gone a long way in recent years to position ourselves as a constructive, accountable, transparent and effective organisation," says Michael Birt, media advisor for WorkSafe Victoria.

"We're there to help business operators and workers understand their legal responsibilities, but it we need to enforce the law, we will," he says.

When faced with an inspection, Birt believes that employers and workers must keep an open mind and see getting an alternative view as being good practice.

"No one has a monopoly on knowledge," he says. "WorkSafe is keen to engage employers, elected health and safety representatives and workers to help them develop good safety practices that will keep them going long after we have left. Cooperation with inspectors is recommended, as obstructing them in the course of their duties is an offence."

"Although a visit may take several hours, our role is not to check every nook and cranny. That's the role of the employer in consultation with their workforce. They are the ones most directly affected by unguarded machines, badly stored chemicals and other products, manual handling hazards, inadequate training/supervision, shortcut taking and other risky behaviour."

Workplace inspectors aim to prevent accidents or, in worst-case scenarios, death, and whether you love them or hate them they are here to stay.

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