Unions urged to be more involved in safety

The co-author of a five year research project into Australia?s occupational health and safety (OH&S) inspectorates says greater union influence is essential to workplace safety.

Professor Michael Quinlan, of the School of Organisation and Management, University of New South Wales, spoke out about the findings of his study with Richard Johnstone.

?Unions haven?t pursued safety as much as they should have and I don?t see employers moaning about that,? Professor Quinlan said in a Safety Institute of Australia podcast.

?We should be mindful from history that unions played a significant part in campaigns which brought about legislation in health and safety, workers? compensation and the reforms of health and safety in the first place.?

In response to remarks that unions might abuse OH&S-related powers for their industrial relations agenda, the Professor said ?there?s been an ongoing argument for a long time that health and safety should be quarantined from industrial relations. That is never going to happen because you can have issues like staffing levels in a workplace, work organisation or the use of contractors. Those sorts of issues will have health and safety and job security aspects and other industrial relations issues, so I think the idea that you can run health and safety as an entirely separate agenda to industrial relations is intellectually and factually flawed.

?In practice, you don?t find a health and safety rep in a workplace where there?s no union. As many incidents will demonstrate, where you don?t have effective worker and union input, you have serious problems with health and safety.?

Provided that unions and inspectorates were adequately resourced, Professor Quinlan said criticisms that Australian OH&S legislation modelled on Robens principles was too soft were largely unjustified.

?My impression from going on workplace visits and dealing with inspectors, looking at employers and others in those situations, is that it?s ironic that we?re getting this sort of criticism,? he said. ?In all honesty, the legislation we have today is the best ever so anyone who criticises it and the enforcement and other activities that goes with it should provide some hard evidence of the problems and, more importantly, a convincing alternative.

?I?m not saying there aren?t problems, but overall the shift has been a positive one with some important caveats about the need for essential infrastructure such as having strong, effective union representation with an interest in health and safety on the ground. But that would apply under any legislative regime and maintaining a sufficiently resourced and well-trained inspectorate.?

Source: Safety in Action Conference 2009/Firfly Marketing

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