Australia: Key OHS lessons from the Home Insulation Program Royal Commission

Last Updated: 19 October 2014

A key lesson for OHS professionals which came out of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program is that where there are ongoing concerns about safety – particularly as a result of commercial pressures – these concerns should be escalated to senior management and, in some cases, the Board, according to an international law firm.

In business, there will often be tensions between the need to meet commercial objectives and achieving a desirable approach to safety, said Aaron Anderson, occupational, health, safety and security partner at Norton Rose Fulbright Australia.

"It may not always be within the power or authority of safety professionals to ensure the right decisions are made," he said.

"However, one of the lessons from the tragic outcomes of the program with the loss of four lives is the importance of ensuring change management incorporates an appropriate reassessment of risk."

Anderson, who acted for two families who lost a family member while performing insulation work as part of the program, observed that the Commission found that the Commonwealth sacrificed planning for speed as there was a perceived immutable start date for the program of 1 July 2009.

"This meant that safety critical controls that were discussed during the early program development were compromised," he said.

"These controls included doing away with mandatory installer training and allowing low barriers to entry for participants in the program which meant that organisations with no previous insulation installation experience could register to be an installer.

"As the Commissioner put to one of the witnesses during the proceeding, one of the problems was the lack of frank and fearless advice about the true risks of the program to Ministers."

Speaking ahead of a breakfast briefing on the issue, Anderson said it became apparent very early on during the Royal Commission proceedings that there was a very real conflict that existed between meeting the policy objectives of the program.

"On the one hand the program was intended to inject $2.7 billion dollars into the Australian economy in a very short period of time and this required a rapid roll out of the work," he said.

"On the other hand, it was estimated that insulation would be installed in around 2.2 million homes and in order to achieve this, in light of the knowledge that there would be a large injection of unskilled workers in to the industry and potentially unscrupulous businesses, careful planning and appropriate controls were necessary."

One of the most startling admissions made during the Royal Commission proceeding was that issues of installer safety was not a risk to the Commonwealth, but was perceived to be a risk to the people doing the work and the companies they were working for had to control the risk, Anderson added.

"This approach resulted in installer safety been omitted from the Commonwealth's risk register for the program, and this omission was not brought to the attention of the Minister responsible for the program delivery," he said.

"This was despite the repeated warnings given to the Commonwealth about the risk of death or injury to installers."

While the companies who were performing the work had statutory responsibilities under state and territory work health and safety laws, and a number of them were prosecuted under those laws, he said the Commission found that the Commonwealth could not abrogate its responsibility for identified risk and the omission of installer safety from the risk register was one of the critical factors in the less than adequate attention given to the consideration of safety in the design and rollout of the program.

The Commission also found that there were failings at senior management level that contributed to the failure of the project, and those failings included not providing candid advice to Ministers on key risk aspects of the program.

"These findings are an important reminder that responsibility for safety in multi-party arrangements does not fall on one party alone," said Anderson.

"Organisations must take steps to protect the safety of people performing work to the extent they can influence or control safety outcomes.

"While it seems from the evidence given during the Royal Commission that the politicians involved were largely kept in the dark in relation to critical safety information, Boards should ensure that there are appropriate governance structures in place to ensure timely and accurate reporting of safety critical information to them and take steps to verify that they are being properly informed of that information.

"By doing this, Boards will be in a position to make informed decisions that ensure safety is not compromised by the organisation in the pursuit of commercial objectives," he said.

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