if you don't have effective worker & union input, you have serious health & safety problems

Unions must up the ante on safety says Professor

One of the authors of a five year research program into Australia's occupational health and safety inspectorates says greater union influence is essential to workplace safety.

The University of NSW's Professor Michael Quinlan spoke out today ahead of his April 2 address to the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne 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 particularly," Professor Quinlan said in a Safety Institute of Australia podcast.

"Having said that, I think we should be very careful to remember from history, that in fact it is unions that played a very significant part in campaigns which brought about health and safety legislation in the first place, workers’ compensation legislation in the first place and the reforms of health and safety legislation,."

In response to remarks that unions might be abusing OHS-related powers to deal with an 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 be possible because..you can have an issue like staffing levels in a workplace, you can have an issue about work organisation, about the use of contractors. Those sorts of issues are going to…have health and safety aspects,  they're going to have job security aspects to that issue, they're going to have other industrial relations issues, so the idea that you can run health and safety as an entirely separate agenda to industrial relations, I think 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 OHS 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've got today is the best we've ever had so anyone who wants to criticise it and the enforcement and other activities that goes with it, I'd want to see some hard evidence of the problems and more importantly, I'd like to see a convincing alternative."

"I'm not saying there aren't problems…but overall the shift has been, in my view, a positive one with some important caveats about the need for essential infrastructure such as having a union movement strong enough to be able to have effective representation and 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.

Professor Quinlan said that while better trained than ever before, inspectorates "…still don't have enough resources to do the job…".