Giving workers an OHS "voice" reduces death and injury rates

Workers given a "voice" in the planning, implementation and review of OHS management are more likely to take ownership of and comply with safety standards, saving employers thousands of dollars in workers' compensation costs, a conference heard yesterday.

Dr Michael Lyons, of the University of Western Sydney's Department of Employment Relations, said in a paper presented at the AIRAANZ conference in Sydney that "employee voice in the form of consultation and representation is... a crucial factor in reducing workplace-related deaths, injuries and diseases".

"Worker participation lends OHS policy a transparent and preventative character," he said.

"When workers [are] involved in identifying problems and developing solutions then they are more likely to implement and adhere to safety standards."

According to Lyons, health and safety legislation adopted by a number of Australian jurisdictions in the 1980s required direct worker participation in OHS matters through consultation, committees and health and safety representatives (HSRs).

However, November 2009 submissions from employer groups to Safe Work Australia on the proposed harmonised OHS laws suggest that "worker participation is of rhetorical status only due to the precedence given to... managerial prerogatives", he said.

He said associations such as the ACCI, which was "conspicuous for its staunchly pro-management focus", argued that the model Act should deny HSRs the capacity to issue provisional improvement notices - "because they tend to be used for 'minor issues' which only distract management" - and restrict consultation obligations to information sharing, with "few or no rights or powers given to workers".

"This is understandable, for it is an attempt to retain managerial prerogatives which obligation-imposing regulation would reduce," Lyons said.

"Yet a more complex analysis suggests some employer associations are not necessarily serving the interests of their constituent members by expressing a strong management-focused argument.

"It is in employers' interests to reduce... costs related to OHS risks. There is considerable evidence that worker participation backed by statutory rights and protection that allows them to have an influence on OHS matters delivers such outcomes."

Worker participation in safety matters gives employees "ownership of decisions", Lyons said, and makes them more willing to accept and implement them, thus reducing workers' compensation premiums.

"It is also justified on moral grounds, given workers bear the burden of failure to manage risks from work."

Read Dr Lyons' speech in full