OHS is one of the best organising tools that the union movement has argues ACTU Assistant Secretary Richard Marles.

Can I welcome everyone to sunny Sydney – those of us from the balmy Victorian climate are struggling a little to adjust to the rain and cold – and can I also welcome you to the ACTU’s National OHS Seminar. This is a seminar which is long overdue. But I can promise that the next seminar will not be overdue because we intend to make this a permanent fixture on the annual calendar.

When unionists negotiate pay increases they improve the lives of workers and their families. When unionists go out and develop vocational education and training in the workplace they improve career paths for the lives of workers. But the work that you, in this room, do saves the lives of workers.

In the short time that I have been involved in Occupational Health and Safety I have come to the view that this is the most important work that the union movement does.

And you all do a fantastic job. OHS people are very passionate and very committed. And that passion and commitment has lead to fantastic results at both a state and union level. And even the ACTU’s OHS Unit, who are obviously struggling with a very different Government, have nevertheless in adversity managed to achieve some fantastic things. There is, for example, and extensive network of occupational health and safety representatives in workplaces around the country. And while the work they do makes workplaces safer they also fly the flag of unionism on this very critical issue. Indeed, OHS is one of the best organising tools that the union movement has.

Despite this there remains much to be done. Owen Tudor from the TUC in Britain has got me thinking about how the union movement can better own the training agenda for OHS representatives. And the job of revitalising the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission is a very difficult but very critical job still to be done.

Over the last six months I have experienced my own personal revelation about occupational health and safety. Mine is not a particularly long union career but it does now span a decade. And I find it amazing that it is only in the last year of that decade, in the fourth year of being an officer of the ACTU, that I have for the first time been significantly exposed to this important and vibrant world of OHS. Now many of you may respond to that observation by saying: “Richard that’s because you are a narrow minded clutz”. And while I certainly accept that that may be a large part of the reason why I have not had this revelation earlier, I also think at least a part of it has to be that OHS is sometimes considered the poorer cousin of the union movement. There is a sense in which OHS work is seen as being marginal within the union world. To the extent that this observation is true, to the extent that the union movement does treat occupational health and safety issues in a marginal way, this is a grave mistake that the union movement makes for there is no issue more important to workers.

But mainstreaming occupational health and safety is not just convincing senior unionists of its importance. At times the OHS world is very inaccessible. Those of us in the OHS world have our own language, we have our own lingo, and while I am starting to understand it better by the day I have found it a very difficult thing to understand. If we want the rest of the union movement to understand and participate in occupational health and safety then we must make it easy for them to do so.

Over the next two days you have a fantastic program ahead of you. Today we will be hearing a number of OHS experts from a range of universities around Australia talk about OHS in a changing world – talk about OHS in the changing labour market, in new employment circumstances, in enterprise bargaining in the emerging field of labour hire companies and under differing regulation and differing regulatory authorities. And tomorrow we will hear the union response to that changing world.

So I hope that you enjoy the program and I hope you enjoy the networking that comes at an event like this which is often just as important as the formal itinerary. Can I thank Peter Moylan, Sue Pennicuik and Ken Norling for all the work they have done in making this seminar a reality and can I also thank John Robertson of the NSW Labor Council and Heather Freeburn in the assistance that they have given.

And finally can I thank you for attending this very important event.

Richard Marles, Assistant Secretary, ACTU. Carlton Crest Hotel, Sydney. Tuesday 13 May 2003.