Belts To Bytes

Belts To Bytes

Why the inclusion of occupational health and safety in enterprise agreements been so poor. The need to develop these occupational health and safety strategies in conjunction with the overall workplace reform program. Amanda Rossetto, National Occupational Health and Safety Coordinator, ACTU.

Enterprise Bargaining For Occupational Health And Safety


Relatively few organisations, including Trade Unions, have adequately addressed the question of how the workplace reform process can create healthier and safer workplaces, or conversely, how occupational health and safety can contribute to the current workplace reform process. Occupational health and safety is an issue which has been, and continues to be marginalised, despite the increasing evidence which supports that good health and safety performance will improve efficiency and productivity.


Of the approximately 2600 workplace agreements (as at October 1994) formally ratified by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, only 845 (32%) contain provision for occupational health and safety. Of these 845 agreements, 292 specify safety measures as a performance indicator, only 282 of them contain very general statements of commitment to improved occupational health and safety performance, and a mere 124 contained occupational health and safety training provisions.


The Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Teaching (ACIRRT) has recently been considering the occupational health and safety "comprehensiveness" of agreements. Their findings are based on an analysis of approximately 600 state and federal enterprise agreements held on the ACIRRT Agreements Data-base (commonly referred to as ADAM), and the results of the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey (AWIRS) conducted by the Federal Department of Industrial Relations.


To determine occupational health and safety "comprehensiveness", ACIRRT grouped occupational health and safety indicators within ADAM under the following broad categories:



  • some kind of written policy/set of objectives;
  • some evidence of measurement/monitoring;
  • some kind of consultative/representative/participatory mechanism;
  • someone responsible/accountability for health and safety at the workplace; and
  • training mechanisms/opportunities.



Agreements were then classified according to these indicators and labelled as "comprehensive", "limited" or "minimal/none" in terms of the range of occupational health and safety indicators. In order to be labelled "comprehensive" an agreement had to have an indicator from 4 out of the 5 groups. An agreement was considered to be "limited" if it had one indicator in the Policy/Objectives group and at least one in one of the other groups (ie. 2 out of 5 indicators). An agreement was labelled "none" if it satisfied none of the above criteria.


Overall, ACIRRT reported that occupational health and safety does not appear to be a significant feature of enterprise agreements. The most significant findings are very general and the percentage of agreements with substantive clauses is small.


The spread based on the approximately 600 agreements on the ADAM database was as follows:



9% of all agreements


36% of all agreements


56% of all agreements.


The highest number of so called "comprehensive" agreements on the ADAM database were recorded in the mining, construction and metal manufacture industries, public utilities, finance, community and recreational services recorded the lowest number. "Comprehensive" occupational health and safety agreements tend to be from larger organisations and highly unionised industries. These industries are characterised by more structured approaches to employee relations, see more negotiations between unions and employers and have more formal communication systems. Also, the inclusion of more "comprehensive" occupational health and safety provisions within agreements tends to be associated with other significant work organisation changes such as:



  • changes to employment status;
  • flexible staff arrangements;
  • removal of demarcations; or
  • changes to hours of work.



ACIRRT noted that the content of agreements does not necessarily reflect on the level or quality of health and safety at a workplace level, but rather the substantive content of the agreement. Further, the extent to which health and safety clauses within agreements are implemented at a workplace level is open to speculation.


So, why has the inclusion of occupational health and safety in enterprise agreements been so poor? There appear to be a number of reasons which may include a belief that occupational health and safety legislation is enough, or that health and safety is not seen as an industrial issue, or that agreements are often negotiated without consultation with health and safety representatives or union health and safety officers, or that there is pressure to have agreements signed and ratified as quickly as possible and therefore the parties do not wish to "see" the health and safety implications of enterprise bargaining changes.


In the case of occupational health and safety legislation, the ACTU believes that legislation alone is not enough. A legislative framework is simply that - a framework which workplaces must operate within. The details of how enterprises then respond to occupational health and safety legislative requirements must be worked out at the workplace level in consultation with employees and their representatives, and it is these details, and their relationship to broader workplace reforms and improved productivity, which are appropriate issues for the enterprise bargaining process.


The integration of occupational health and safety with workplace reform is even more important given the shift away from a prescriptive regulatory approach to one which is performance based. Under prescriptive regulations, employers are required to comply with a particular standard in a particular way. A performance based approach requires that employers achieve certain outcomes in relation to workplace hazards without specifying in detail how such outcomes are to be attained. The lack of detailed requirements under this new regulatory approach places the onus on employers to develop occupational health and safety strategies appropriate to their workplace which comply with the performance based standards. It makes good sense to develop these occupational health and safety strategies in conjunction with the overall workplace reform program.

Occupational Health And Safety And Productivity

The connection between occupational health and safety and productivity is not always immediately obvious. In part, this is because occupational health and safety is often treated as a fixed cost item. As a result, workplace health and safety performance is rarely monitored.


Australia has a very high rate of workplace injury and disease which has direct costs for the economy, in the form of workers' compensation payments, of around $5 billion every year.


Indirect costs are conservatively estimated to add another $20 billion to that figure each year. In addition to workers' compensation payments, workplace injuries have a significant impact on productivity. This includes:



  • production losses as a result of downtime immediately following injury;
  • accident investigation and the administrative work involved in processing workers' compensation claims;
  • recruiting, training and paying replacement staff or, lost production through non-replacement of injured staff;
  • extra maintenance and repairs to machinery; and
  • productivity losses through decreased morale among workers.



The effects of occupational disease on productivity can be even more indirect. Many illnesses associated with workplace exposure to health hazards develop over long periods of time. These effects often do not show up immediately as lost time due to compensable injury, however, increasing use of sick leave or other forms of absenteeism may gradually impact on productivity.


In looking at the variables which affect productivity, terms such as quality, quantity, efficiency and effectiveness are common. Occupational health and safety performance has an impact on all of these factors. These connections need to be highlighted and recognised so that their impact on productivity can be measured.


Workplaces need occupational health and safety management systems which will provide the information to identify the costs of work related injury and disease, the types of injury and disease which incur the greatest proportion of cost, and the work processes associated with those injuries and diseases. Based on this, the connections between productivity and occupational health and safety can be identified and acted on.


Attention to health and safety can make substantial contributions to efficiency and productivity through:



  • eliminating hazardous conditions in the workplace which create inefficiencies simply because
  • workers are required to take more care, thereby slowing down production,
  • improving workplace design and layout to enhance the natural work flow which saves time and eliminates hazards associated with, for example, double handling of materials or strain injuries from poor design and layout;
  • establishing work systems which prevent injury and disease, managers who are aware of their health and safety responsibilities towards their employees and workers who have been trained to perform their work in the safest, most efficient manner; and
  • workplace consultative arrangements which truly encourage worker participation and which bring the causes of many of the efficiencies to light.



There are further flow-on benefits for productivity to be achieved by addressing these issues. Safer, more efficient production will lead to increases in both quantity and quality of throughput, and more effective use of resources. Cleaner production, with less cost to the environment, is usually another benefit of safer production methods.


The real benefits to productivity are to be gained through loss control. This relies on having a proactive approach to preventing exposure to health and safety hazards in the workplace. However, it is not as easy to measure the contribution of such preventive approaches to productivity. Enterprises need to develop their own qualitative measures based on the effectiveness of the hazard identification, risk assessment and control systems in their workplaces.

How To Address Occupational Health And Safety In Enterprise Agreements

The inclusion of occupational health and safety clauses in workplace agreements will not guarantee that health and safety issues are automatically resolved, any more than the enactment of occupational health and safety legislation by government suddenly stops work-related injury and disease. The rationale for getting occupational health and safety onto the workplace reform agenda is simply, but importantly, a matter of ensuring that safer, healthier workplaces are part of the shared objectives which emerge from the enterprise bargaining process.


There are several methods of addressing occupational health and safety in enterprise agreements:



  • the integrated approach which is more appropriate for workplaces where occupational health and safety management systems are already in place and are linked to the corporate objectives and management systems of the workplace;
  • the separate clause approach which may be appropriate for workplaces where little attention has been given to health and safety; and
  • the enabling clause approach which does not address occupational health and safety in great detail within the agreement, but addresses health and safety by the inclusion of a clause which ensures that a more complete occupational health and safety agreement will be negotiated within a defined timeframe. This would be done with the input of health and safety representatives and the health and safety committee.



Whichever method is chosen as more appropriate for a particular workplace, there are a few principles which should guide the approach to including health and safety in an enterprise agreement.

1. Legislated Occupational Health and Safety Standards Should Not Be Negotiated

Together with the principal occupational health and safety legislation, regulations establish the standards for workplace health and safety in each state and territory in Australia. Workplace parties may negotiate to achieve higher standards for their workplace and agreement to achieve higher standards is encouraged. However, the establishment of higher standards through workplace agreements may create an inconsistency with state or territory health and safety legislation, which in turn may lead to enforcement problems.


There is another inconsistency issue which should also be considered. If a workplace in any state or territory is a respondent to a federal award and it provides for something different to that provided by state/territory health and safety legislation, then federal award provisions prevail, but only to the extent that it differs from the state/territory health and safety legislation. Enforcement of the federal award provision is the responsibility of the federal awards management officers, not the state-based -inspectorate. Since federal awards prevail over state law, where there is any inconsistency between the two, it is important not to unwittingly create any inconsistency between the state law and a federally registered industrial agreement.

2. Link Occupational Health And Safety With Broader Enterprise Objectives

It is not appropriate to simply restate provisions which exist under current state or territory occupational health and safety legislation in a workplace agreement. If the objectives of the workplace agreement are to improve enterprise productivity, efficiency and flexibility, then health and safety considerations should be linked with these outcomes. For instance, initiatives designed to increase workforce flexibility by allowing job rotation and multiskilling should be linked to health and safety objectives such as the elimination of repetitive jobs which are frequently associated with occupational overuse injuries.

3. Establish Accountability For Occupational Health And Safety Performance

Accountability for health and safety performance should be a feature of workplace agreements. While the employer has a duty of care to provide a health and safety place of work, all parties in the workplace have a role to play in ensuring health and safety standards are maintained. Accountability for occupational health and safety should be addressed through job descriptions outlining the roles and responsibilities of managers, supervisors and work groups. Occupational health and safety responsibilities should be spelt out in the same way as responsibility for an issue like product quality might be detailed in a job description.


Health and safety committees and workplace representatives have an important role to play in monitoring health and safety performance and reviewing health and safety programs. However, it must be remembered that health and safety committees and representatives cannot be made accountable for the day-to-day management of health and safety issues. The final responsibility rests with the employer.

4. Recognise Occupational Health And Safety Contribution To Productivity

The contribution of improved health and safety performance to productivity increases should be acknowledged, not just in terms of reductions in lost time injuries but also in terms of more efficient work organisation. Monitoring trends in injury rates is only one aspect of managing health and safety. Agreements which establish targets for reductions in lost time injury rates, especially when linked to performance pay or other incentive schemes, run the risk of promoting or rewarding under-reporting of workplace accidents and injuries.


Performance indicators should include measures which indicate what steps are being taken to resolve health and safety problems and what efficiencies are being achieved. Performance indicators which focus on the quality of inputs designed to prevent injury and disease and decrease associated costs may include measures such as:


  • the number of hazard audits conducted;
  • the number of health and safety issues resolved;
  • reductions in exposure to hazards;
  • frequency of health and safety committee meetings;
  • the number of health and safety training courses conducted, and
  • health and safety assessments included in performance appraisals.


5. Workplace Reform Initiatives Should Not Negatively Impact On Health And Safety

A good example of this is the introduction of more flexible hours of work, which often involves the introduction of 12 hours shifts or extended shifts. There has been some recent research which found that some workers at the end of 12 hour shifts had reaction times comparable to those of people with a blood alcohol reading of 0.1! The health and safety effects of shift work can be very serious. Before any substantial changes to hours of work are made, there should be a thorough examination of all the possible consequences, and expert advice should be sought.

What Health And Safety Issues To Address In Workplace Agreements

1. Objectives

Health and safety must be integrated with the overall objectives of the workplace agreement. Notions of continuous improvement of work and management practices should include consideration of occupational health and safety to ensure that improved efficiency and productivity also lead to healthier and safer jobs.

2. Consultation

Communication between workers and management is essential in the development of shared objectives for the enterprise. At its simplest, workplace consultative arrangements must ensure that problems experience in the workplace are discussed openly. Health and safety problems must be included in such discussion.


Consultative arrangements within the workplace must be linked to existing workplace structures which have been established to address workplace health and safety issues. A practical consideration might include cross membership between the occupational health and safety committees and bargaining committees. This will ensure that groups established to examine work organisation, job design and training also consider health and safety issues.

3. Training

Health and safety must be integrated with workplace training programs. Agreements should establish enterprise commitment to health and safety training for workplace occupational health and safety representatives, supervisors and managers. Induction and on-the-job instruction should address health and safety policy and procedures, particular hazards associated with particular jobs, control measures applicable to particular hazards, and how to utilise occupational health and safety systems to identify hazards and instigate preventive action. Workplace literacy and English programs should include occupational health and safety issues. Broader workplace training reforms should also recognise the need to address health and safety issues in skills development programs.

4. Occupational Health And Safety Management Systems

Agreements may set out, in appropriate detail for the enterprise, health and safety management systems which address issues such as reporting and recording of health and safety incidents, analysis of such records, hazards audits, maintenance programs, training, information provision, health and safety specifications for purchasing procedures, personal protective equipment, and first aid and emergency procedures. These workplace arrangements should be developed in consultation with the occupational health and safety committee and health and safety representatives.

5. Changes To Work Systems And Methods Of Work

Processes established by workplace agreements to address changes to work systems and methods of work need to take account of the potential impact on health and safety of any proposed changes. This should include issues such as work organisation, job creation, physical workplace design and layout, new technology and skills development. Changes should not proceed until suitable measures have been developed to control any associated risks to health and safety.

6. Hours Of Work

As previously mentioned, any proposed changes to hours of work, in particular, the introduction of shift work or extended shifts should not proceed without consideration of the health and safety effects of such working arrangement. For example, since exposure standards for atmospheric contaminants are generally set for 8 hours shifts, the introduction of extended shifts will require consideration of the health and safety implications of longer periods of exposure.

7. Rehabiliation

Workplace agreements should establish a commitment to the rehabilitation of injured workers through appropriate return-to-work programs.

8. Productivity

As previously stated, agreements should not link productivity pay increases for workers to specified targets for injury reductions because such targets have the potential to encourage under reporting of work related injury. Development of productivity measures needs to include not just savings through reductions in lost time injuries and workers’ compensation premium rebates, but also measures of the effectiveness of the health and safety systems established in the workplace. These measures may be based on the views of workers and managers as well as numerical measures. This information could be obtained through surveys of workers and managers, outcomes of workplace hazard audits, records of training, maintenance reports and health and safety committee records. Surveys of workers and managers might be useful means of generating ratings or scores for the effectiveness of health and safety initiatives.


In conclusion, occupational health and safety has a critical role to play in the workplace reform process and needs to be better integrated into the drive for productivity and efficiency improvements at the enterprise level.


Enterprise bargaining provides an opportunity for the consideration of occupational health and safety improvement strategies within the context of broader initiatives to improve workplace efficiency and productivity.


We all need to give greater recognition to the potential that good occupational health and safety performance has for the creation of more efficient, more productive, more competitive Australian workplaces which are also safer, healthier and better places to work.


The ACTU has developed a set of guidelines to help unions integrate occupational health and safety into enterprise agreements. Please contact me at the ACTU Occupational Health and Safety Unit if you would like a copy of the guidelines.


Presented By Amanda Rossetto National Occupational Health And Safety Coordinator, Australian Council Of Trade Unions. Factories Act Centenary Conference. 18 November, 1994 Adelaide Convention Centre