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Call for Australian government to nationalise OHS

09 March, 2006

In the midst of the fierce industrial relations battle, the NSW Industrial Relations Minister is backing calls for the federal government to assume control of workplace safety.

Industrialsafetytalk

Australia's occupational health and safety laws and workers' compensation schemes are state-based with varying employer obligations.

Employers, unions, the Safety Institute of Australia and the office of NSW Industrial Relations Minister, John Della Bosca, have offered support for a national system.

Della Bosca's spokesperson, Andrew Plumley, said the Minister is interested in giving up state jurisdiction over occupational health and safety (OHS) laws and workers compensation.

"We would happily look at a single regime so long as it was not based on the lowest common denominator and that the best of each state's system was preserved," he said.

"Employers are much more interested in national OHS than national industrial relations, which no one was calling for".

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) director of workplace policy Peter Anderson agreed his members would be better served by 'national frameworks'.

Referring to the ACCI's April OHS blueprint, he said it "argues strongly that there should be greater consistency in occupational health and safety laws," which, he said, could be achieved with national regulation.

"The blueprint contemplates this discussion [on national OHS laws] emerging over the life of the blueprint as the economy takes on more national and international characteristics," he said.

Employers would also benefit from a single workers' compensation scheme, according to the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA).

Barry Silburn, SIA NSW division president, said the differences in Australia's workers compensation schemes were costly for employers.

"Integration of all state-based workers compensation schemes into a national scheme could lead to savings and a uniform system," he said.

'At present, organisations working remotely from their home state take additional policies to ensure they have adequate cover and companies working in many states have a nightmare sorting out the premiums".

The push for a national OHS system was triggered by workplace safety author, lawyer and Deacons partner, Michael Tooma.

Tooma said he would argue strongly for reform. "The significant differences in state legislation put national companies or companies that operate across state borders to great expense in compliance costs and create confusion in relation to OHS legal obligations,'"he said.

"Every wave of state reform subtly takes the states further and further apart on OHS obligations."

"This may be great for lawyers but makes no commercial or economic sense."

Tooma said the federal government could utilise its external affairs power to enact uniform national OHS laws.

"Such an initiative would have the support of both employers and employees as they struggle to deal with the maze of state and territory laws in this area," he added.

NSW Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) OHS officer David Henry, indicated in-principle support for his union.

"The union's position and a condition for support for the establishment of national OHS legislation, would be that the best practice and highest standards as applies in any state jurisdiction for a given area relating to OHS and welfare would have to be incorporated into the Act," he said.

"Further, the defining of best practice or highest standards would be developed by the union to avoid watering down."

"This would not limit the introduction of legislation over and above what currently exists where it would be beneficial to workers."

While comment from federal Minister Kevin Andrews could not be sourced, the Opposition's OHS spokesperson, Stephen Smith, said, "the federal government can and should do more to ensure appropriate standards are applied for Australian workers irrespective of where they work."

Smith said there should be increased resources for research, standards setting, information and inspection; uniform minimum standards of compensation and other rights for injured workers, and; tripartite industry forums on occupational health and safety.

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