Insurance and Risk Alert: National Workplace Health and Safety Laws - not so harmonious? - 4 August 2011

In July 2008 the Council of Australian Governments signed the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety. The agreement sought to resolve the disparity associated with the individual States' approach to occupational health and safety (OHS) by 1 January 2012 (discussed in a previous HopgoodGanim alert).

Here, we look at the agreement in detail.

Some of the key considerations regarding the need for uniform OHS laws (as discussed in the report to the Workplace Relations Ministers' Council dated 31 October 2008) are as follows:

  • The health and safety of Australian workers is a key concern of Australian governments at all levels. All workers have the right to a safe and healthy workplace and employers have the right to expect that workers and visitors to their workplaces will cooperate with OHS rules.
  • All Australian governments have taken a broadly similar approach to regulating safer workplaces. Despite this, there remain differences between jurisdictions as to the form, detail and substantive matters in OHS legislation.
  • Harmonising OHS laws will cut red tape, boost business efficiency and provide greater certainty and protections for all workplace parties.

Three years on, the following has occurred:

  • Independent review of Australia's OHS laws;
  • Proposed model OHS Bill released for public comment in December 2009;
  • Further revised draft model OHS Bills released in May and November 2010;
  • Proposed model OHS Regulation released for public comment in December 2010 closed in April 2011;
  • Queensland, New South Wales and the Commonwealth passed the Work Health and Safety Bill 2011 in 26 May, 7 June and 6 July 2011 respectively;
  • Proposed model OHS Regulation, issues paper and codes of practice for mining released for public comment in July 2011.

The other states are yet to introduce the Bill.

According to an article by the Australian on 25 July 2011, the West Australian Commerce Minister, Simon O'Brien wrote to federal minister and other state ministers "requesting reconsideration of the current time frames" for the introduction of uniform OHS laws across Australia. Mr O'Brien indicated that his comments were in response to concerns shown by major industry groups with the implementation timeline outlined by the federal government.

Major business groups are split over whether national workplace safety laws should be delayed.

  • Carolyn Davis, a workplace safety expert with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the ACCI "supports harmonisation, but not at any cost". She said the federal government had underestimated the compliance costs in the new legislation.
  • Mark Goodsell, Director of Australian Industry Group said, "Nothing has really changed since three years ago when this process began... we would be very disappointed if there was a fracturing of commitment or if the timeline was pushed out."
  • Scott Thompson, Business Council of Australia spokesman said, "For there to be truly effective and national system of workplace safety it needs the involvement of every jurisdiction."

According to the Safe Work Australia website, progress for harmonisation remains on track with the target remaining January 2012. It remains to be seen if this will eventuate.

Further updates will be provided in future alert editions. If you require information regarding this agreement, please contact our Insurance and Risk Team.