Australia: Safe Work Australia - A Step Forward For The Harmonisation Of Occupational Health And Safety

Last Updated: 23 October 2008
Article by Luke Connolly

Key Point

  • Safe Work Australia's role will be to improve occupational health and safety outcomes and workers' compensation arrangements across Australia.

As you may be aware, on 4 September 2008 the Commonwealth Government introduced the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 into the House of Representatives. The Bill, if passed, will establish Safe Work Australia as a national independent statutory body, whose role will be to improve occupational health and safety outcomes and workers' compensation arrangements across Australia.

About the Bill

The creation of Safe Work Australia stems from the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety, finalised on 3 July 2008. As a result of the agreement, the States and Territories have agreed to work co-operatively with the Commonwealth Government to harmonise occupational health and safety legislation by no later than December 2011.

Safe Work Australia will be comprised of an independent chair, along with representatives of the Commonwealth, each State and Territory, employers and unions. The initial budget will be $17 million, with half the contribution being made by the Commonwealth and the other half coming from the States and Territories. The amount contributed will be proportional to the population of each State or Territory.

Safe Work Australia will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council and will have the power to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council.

As a reform-focused body, Safe Work Australia's primary functions will be to:

  • Prepare a model national Occupational Health and Safety Act to be uniformly adopted by all the states and territories and approved by the Ministerial Council.
  • Develop model regulations and codes of practice to be approved by the Ministerial Council. (The Bill will repeal the Australian Workplace Safety Standards Act 2005, however the existing national standards and codes of practice will remain in force until replaced by model regulations and codes of practice developed by Safe Work Australia.)
  • Develop national policy relating to occupational health and safety and workers' compensation.
  • Prepare, develop and monitor a compliance and enforcement policy, which will ensure nationally consistent regulatory approaches across all jurisdictions.
  • Further investigate the harmonisation of workers' compensation arrangements and develop proposals for a national arrangement.
  • Undertake data collection and research and publish findings to ensure that all jurisdictions and industries have access to up-to-date and industry-specific information to help reduce safety risks and injury.
  • Develop and drive national communications and campaign strategies that raise awareness of health and safety in the workplace.
  • Further develop and continue the work of its predecessors, the Australian Safety and Compensation Council and the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, with regard to the National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy 2002-2012.
  • Liaise with other countries and international organisations on matters relating to occupational health and safety and workers' compensation.
  • Advise the Workplace Relations Ministerial Council on occupational health and safety and workers' compensation matters, as well as proposals outlining harmonisation strategies.

There are numerous positives to arise out of this Bill, with it being anticipated that the move will be supported by most, if not all, occupational health and safety stakeholders.

The CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia, Mitchell Hooke, has already welcomed the move, stating that the existing "raft of overlapping OH&S laws, standards and requirements diverts businesses from the primary goal of improving workplace health and safety... the multi-layered regulatory regime [imposes] a significant administrative burden that is amplified when businesses operate across multiple jurisdictions". The complexity of this regulatory burden will be significantly reduced through the operation of Safe Work Australia. This will in turn provide increased workplace health and safety for workers right across Australia.

However there are a number of criticisms and concerns arising out of the Bill, with various unions and employer groups questioning the representative make-up of the 15 members on the board of Safe Work Australia. In some circles it is felt that nine government members, compared with two representatives each from employers and unions, represents an imbalance that will affect the overall improvements in occupational health and safety.

Issues surrounding accountability and transparency have also caused some concern, with Safe Work Australia only required to report back to the House of Representatives every six years.

It remains to be seen how these concerns will be addressed as the Bill passes through Parliament, however it is clear that this remains a positive step in the occupational health and safety harmonisation process. The establishment of Safe Work Australia will undoubtedly improve the workplace health and safety of employees, while easing the regulatory burden on businesses across Australia.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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