New harmonised OHS legislation endorsed

Uniform safety laws are designed to maintain Australia's good OHS record.

Australia’s State, Territory and Commonwealth Governments have agreed that by the end of 2011, new harmonised occupational health and safety model legislation will replace all existing state and territory OHS laws.

On December 11, 2009 the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council endorsed a national model OHS law, subject to minor technical amendments.

Ai Group led the way in achieving the December endorsement, and our Director – NSW, Mark Goodsell, is a member of Safe Work Australia, which has the responsibility for overseeing the development and implementation of the new laws.

Safe Work Australia is now working on the development of model national OHS regulations. A four-month public comment period will commence later this year.

This will be an important process for all companies to watch and get involved in. Regulations contain most of the detail that companies need to comply with on a day-to-day basis. Changes in OHS regulations can affect products, services and competitive positioning, as well as safety practices.

No one should expect that the new regime will allow companies to relax their focus on safety. The underlying standards of what is expected of employers will not change – the requirement will still be there to continually look for hazards, control the risks they pose, and to confirm those controls are working. Employers will still have to consult with employees on this process.

However, what harmonisation promises is that these standards will be expressed and enforced consistently throughout the country. From 2012, Australian employers can look forward to safeguarding the welfare of their workers in a regulatory environment that is much easier to understand.

The new legislation is called “model” law because, unlike the national industrial relations legislation, which is a single federal law, in the case of OHS the States and Territories will retain separate pieces of legislation but agree to base each of their respective laws on an agreed national model. It will be the same law passed separately in each state.

Each state will continue to have its own OHS regulator. Importantly, these regulators have agreed to work to a national enforcement and compliance protocol, so that they interpret and enforce the new law in the same way. This is a vital part of the package, just as important as the model legislation itself.

Although WA has agreed to continue to aim for national harmonisation of OHS laws, it is likely it will be the only state not to implement the model laws in full. The WA Government has concerns over a number of matters, including the level of maximum fines, union right of entry provisions and the right of workplace safety representatives to direct a cessation of work in unsafe conditions. However, WA has indicated they will implement the rest of the model law.

Uniform safety standards and enforcement across all Australian jurisdictions have obvious benefits for the efficient training of managers and staff and anyone else whose actions can impact on the safety of the workplace.

There’s no argument that the ultimate aim of making Australian workplaces as safe as possible is of paramount importance. There are, of course, differing views about how to achieve this. That’s why it’s been a long and exhaustively consultative process to get to this point.

Australia’s workplace safety standards and outcomes are among the best in the world, and legislation that is consistent across all jurisdictions will ensure we stay that way.

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