Safety Institute of Australia blasts new OH&S Act

Friday, 25 March, 2005

Australian safety professionals have branded the new Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act as bureaucratic, unscientific and unlikely to be any more effective than the legislation it replaces.

The Safety Institute of Australia's (SIA) National President, David Skegg, and Academic Head, Geoff Dell, said in a joint statement that the new Act will do very little to prevent Victorian workers being injured.

"In fact, the Act might just lead to more confusion in workplaces, unabated injuries and will create an immense bureaucracy," the pair wrote.

The SIA said the Act placed the burden of enforcement on workers, who were generally ill equipped to recognise safety breaches.

"The Act puts workers in the role of policemen - appointing deputies, giving union officials the right of entry and giving the inspectorate police powers - but that does little to enhance the controls over hazards," it said.

"Law enforcement is the police's job. Giving inspectors search powers and a right not to disclose their presence simply puts the frighteners on people trying to do the right thing and stay in business, who are the vast majority."

While the new Act promotes consultation, Dell said those involved were generally not qualified to deal with safety issues.

"While worker consultation and enforcement are essential, they alone will not deliver low risk workplaces," he said.

"Much more is required to help decision makers in the workplace understand how to mitigate risk. Far too often, they just don't have the knowledge needed to deliver effective hazard controls, so the exposure to injury remains unacceptably high.

"This is unlikely to change under the new legislation and these risk control failures won't be detected until an accident occurs."

Skegg said the inadequacy of safety training throughout Victorian industry was compounded by the complexity of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

"The science of safety is deceptively simple," he said.

"To wrap it up in a convoluted 162-page document and expect it to have any effect, when in reality there is a pitifully small chance of being visited by an inspector unless you have had an accident, defies logic."

Dell went further, claiming the lack of clarity would lead to poorer safety practices and potentially, increased injury rates.

"Section 20(2)(a), for example, is technically incompetent, confusing the basic terms 'hazard' and 'risk'," he said.

"A risk is the chance of a hazard doing damage - to confuse these terms within the legislation could result in poor risk assessment, poor risk control and ultimately, injuries."

The answer, according to the SIA, can only come in a paradigm shift away from prosecution to prevention.

"WorkSafe is woefully under-resourced to do the job it's been given. It should have two or three thousand experts offering support to industry rather than a few hundred inspectors trying to enforce the Act," Dell said.

"Overseas experience, such as in British Columbia, shows that enforcement must be matched with education and prevention.

"Ignoring any of these elements takes us into a fantasy land where all we can achieve is a wringing of hands when things go wrong, while people continue to die."

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