Work safety backlash builds

Workplace laws

By Ewin Hannan

Employers claim the Gillard government’s proposed national health and safety laws could increase the cost of housing, delay construction projects and impose extraordinary over-regulation on businesses.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry said yesterday the new national system was in danger of collapse unless Safe Work Australia dropped proposals that would leave business “suffocating in red tape”.

The ACCI said businesses would be required to provide detailed written risk assessments on most plant and equipment, including potentially listing items as small as battery-powered drills and electric pencil sharpeners.

The Housing Industry Association said the cost of housing risked increasing under a proposal for an “onerous” work health and safety management plan to be undertaken on any construction work over $200,000.

The HIA said the threshold was “illogically low” and would expose all new home residential construction to burdensome and unnecessary administrative requirements that would be likely to be passed on to consumers.

The regulations also propose that five days’ notice be given for any excavation work greater than 1.5m, with the association warning that the requirement could cause delays in projects and impose “unjustified red tape” on many residential building sites where there were currently no notification requirements.

A key political stumbling block to the introduction of uniform national OHS laws was removed last month with the election of Barry O’Farrell as NSW Premier. Mr O’Farrell has promised to ditch his Labor predecessor’s opposition to the proposed reforms, falling in line with all other states.

But The Weekend Australian revealed earlier this month that big employers, including Rio Tinto, Woolworths and Xstrata Coal, had warned Safe Work Australia that the new regime set out in draft legislation could saddle them with extra costs and tie them up in red tape.

ACCI chief executive Peter Anderson said yesterday his organisation had made a 400-page submission to Safe Work Australia — the independent statutory agency charged with preparing the new laws — based on feedback about the regulations from member companies across 14 sectors.

“Every industry sector is concerned that they will be hit with new rules that will increase the cost of doing business, that would flow on to even basic costs, including the cost of housing,” Mr Anderson said.

He said the proposed national harmonisation of health and safety laws was “in danger of foundering” unless Safe Work Australia recommended a set of practical regulations.

“This task is, of course, worthwhile for business, workers and government,” Mr Anderson said. “We all know it is an extremely difficult task. The danger is Australia could end up with better harmony in OHS regulation but see business suffocating in red tape.”

The chamber says businesses will be required to conduct written risk assessments on plant and equipment to identify potential workplace hazards; that could include having to list electronic devices as small as sharpeners. Mr Anderson said most businesses were local employers and did not operate across state boundaries.

“It’s not enough for government to claim national companies will benefit. The content of regulation will decide the fate of harmonisation,” he said.

“The new framework must give small and medium enterprises practical ability to understand legal obligations and what compliance requires.

“Impenetrable regulation imposes unfair burdens on business and, more importantly, does nothing to deliver better health and safety outcomes.”

Workplace Relations Minister Chris Evans emphasised that the proposals were draft regulations, and the government wanted further contributions from employer groups and unions.

“An Access Economics report has estimated that harmonising OHS laws will save businesses $179 million per annum and will improve safety standards for workers,” a spokesman for Senator Evans said.

“Safe Work Australia is currently considering its response to the range of submissions received during the public consultation period on the draft model work health and safety codes and regulations,” the spokesman said.

“The government encourages employer and employee groups to continue to offer input into the development of the model regulations and codes of practice through Safe Work Australia.”

Unions criticised employers for complaining about the regulations, claiming companies were more interested in “cutting corners to increase profits” than the safety of workers.

The Council of Australian Governments has set January 1 next year as the date for commencement of the model laws, and the government insists it is on track to meet the timeframe.

Article from The Australian, April 2011.

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