Written by Occupational Health News editor Annie Lawson.
Some work health and safety (WHS) regulators are increasingly taken an educative approach to workplace safety without compromising their legal obligations under WHS laws. WorkCover NSW, which is soon to be overhauled with SafeWork NSW being the safety arm, has prided itself on changing tactics from being prosecutorial to prevention focused in an effort to boost workplace safety.
WorkCover WHS operations director Tony Williams told OHN the regulator made a “concerted effort” to promote prevention, education, guidance material and awareness over the past decade and swing away from a more punitive approach. The result has seen prosecution numbers halve to around 50 to 60 a year in NSW compared to five years ago, as the regulator focuses on proactive measures to help organisations better manage risks and take actions to minimise hazards. “Ten years we would have taken a very different approach to now,” he said. “These days we use a whole range of tools to help industry and our focus is to try and prevent harm. We have a target of 70% in terms of proactive versus reactive work.”
Williams said WorkCover’s proactive work comprised 60% to 80% of its current workload and included education campaigns, safety webinars, prohibition and improvement notices, safety rebates and free advisory visits. He said businesses were comfortable asking for help without fear of recriminations. Inspectors had high levels of technical skills and worked closely with high risk and priority industries such as transport, construction and also the small business sector. Central to the regulator’s success has been a sophisticated triage system that filters hundreds of thousands of matters each year.
When inspectors issue improvement and prohibition notices, “gone are the days they do so and walk away. Instead they worked with companies to resolve high risk issues, Williams said.
Enforceable Undertakings de rigueur
Enforceable Undertakings (EUs), whereby a company facing prosecution for a safety breach can propose EUs in lieu of court action, have increased from zero a year ago to eight this year and a further 16 under consideration. Williams said EUs have “great long-term benefits for workers and the community” and he expected them to grow exponentially over the next few years. “The last thing we want to do is to have all these great resources but with industry being too scared to ask for help,” he said. “We have worked hard to turn that around and prefer to spend our time helping businesses be productive and not hurt people.”
WorkSafe Vic prosecutions on the rise
WorkSafe Vic bucked the trend, with prosecutions increasing to 121 in 2014/15. WorkSafe Vic general counsel Leanne Hughson told OHN while education was a crucial part of the regulator’s work organisations that breached occupational health and safety (OHS) breaches faced prosecution and steep penalties. “While educating employers and employees on their rights and responsibilities is an important part of WorkSafe’s strategy to improve workplace health and safety, Victorian OHS legislation is clear,” Hughson said. “Businesses and individuals that do not comply with their health and safety obligations can expect to be charged and face significant penalties. WorkSafe inspectors have a range of tools to ensure employers comply with their OHS obligations. This includes providing advice or, where appropriate, issuing improvement or prohibition notices to ensure health and safety matters are dealt with as soon as reasonably practicable.”
Despite the number of workplace injuries and fatalities having declined in recent years, the number of prosecutions increased. The number of organisations and individuals WorkSafe prosecuted for occupational health and safety (OHS) breaches peaked at 122 in 2013/14 in the past five years, and was 121 in 2014/15. This compares to 108 in 2012/13 and 2011/12 and 88 in 2010/11.
Education central to WorkSafe WA strategy
WorkSafe WA acting executive director Ian Munns told OHN education was central to the regulator’s strategy in tackling workplace safety thanks to proactive inspection programs across industries, regions and activities. Prosecution was a last resort, except with serious incidents, injuries and fatalities, he said. As the WA Government continues to deliberate the harmonised WHS laws, Munns said the regulator had always adopted an education first approach, including conducting inspection campaigns to raise safety awareness. “Our main aim is to deliver safer workplaces and you don’t have to do that by prosecution, which is a time-consuming, resource-intensive activity,” he said.
AiG applauds regulatory ‘knowledge transfer’
Australian Industry Group (AiG) WHS director Mark Goodsell told OHN using prosecution as a measure of intervention success was “counter-productive”. “There needs to be a high level of knowledge transfer from regulators to workplaces to deal with obligations the WHS laws give them,” he said. “Being a hyper-aggressive prosecutor makes employers scared of engaging with the regulator.” Nationally Goodsell has seen a shift to a regulatory approach of unlocking knowledge to benefit workplaces. “We noticed among companies we represent there is in general more willingness to engage with regulators in a proactive way and invite them in and ask advice,” he said. “That didn’t happen 10 years ago. Regulators have tried to be more educative and industry took a while to trust them. It doesn’t mean they are not tough in appropriate situations, but they are more willing to help a company deal with the high-order task of managing safety.”
First published in Occupational Health News August 19, 2015
Occupational Health News is the weekly independent occupational health and safety news that subscribers trust. OHS professionals across Australia have turned to OHN since 1981, for news and analysis sourced from key contacts in the field.
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