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Hazards and
Workers' Health International Newsletter
PO Box 199
Sheffield S1 4YL

The union effect

Hazards shows why safety is better organised.

[January 2002 briefing document, Unions Western Australia[


Western Australia is currently undergoing changes to the industrial relations system and laws that facilitate working arrangements for all workers in this state. One aspect of these changes deals with proposed statutory rights for union officials to enter upon workplaces, whether there are members of their union working or not, to check and ensure that the onsite workers are being paid their correct entitlements, that the working conditions they are being expected to work under are of an acceptable standard and most importantly that the states occupational safety and health laws are being complied with.


The former conservative Liberal Government passed anti worker/anti union legislation in 1997 (known as the third wave) which severely restricted the rights of unions to organise workplaces and ensure that wages, working conditions and health and safety were maintained according to the law.

They also made significant changes to the Occupational Health and Safety laws which had the effect of diminishing the rights of unions to become involved in workplace processes and attempted to excise them from the important role of assisting in the resolution of health and safety issues at the workplace.

Since then the conservative were thrown out of office and were replaced with a Labor government who had expressed sympathy for workers issues and who had expressed a willingness during their election campaign to repeal the "third wave" legislation and restore some balance in the workplace.

In numerous worker surveys conducted nationally, health and safety continued to rank 3rd in importance behind wages and conditions and job security. The importance on health and safety arises from workers experience that workplace safety has been steadily declining under conservative government rule and had reached a point where a concerted focus was necessary to improve safety standards.

WorkSafe Western Australia, the government agency responsible for policing the safety laws, has limited resources in its inspectorates resulting in many thousands of workplaces being denied a visit from an inspector.

Elected workplace safety and health representatives face a continuing battle to improve, or even maintain legislated standards of safety and often "throw in the towel" through frustration and lack of support from the authorities leaving no-one to ensure that safety issues are dealt with appropriately.

It is expected that safety and health representatives will be granted the right to issue provisional improvement notices in the workplace this year as a consequence of amendments to the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984. These changes are expected to result from a statutory review of the legislation conducted by Bob Laing in 2001 and follow a call by Unions WA to insert the provision to facilitate more eyes and ears in the workplace to ensure safety standards are met and to close the gap in workplaces that do not receive a visit from a WorkSafe Inspector.

Roving Union Officials:

There are many industries that will significantly benefit from having roving union officials capable of legally entering workplaces to check on the effective application of safety laws, check that workers are receiving their correct entitlements and other conditions such as superannuation workers compensation insurance coverage and the like.

For example, high profile industries like building and construction have been hard hit by declining safety standards. Much of the substandard safety performance derives from the competitive nature of the industry and the reluctance of industry players to embrace occupational health and safety as a mainstream management issue. Unfortunately, the notion of maintaining a "level playing field" in OH&S performance has not been achieved.

When union officials have a statutory right to enter workplaces to check on how workers are being treated there will be a much higher likelihood that acceptable standards of safety will be enforced across the whole industry and that under performing employers will be identified and dealt with. Workers will be encouraged to speak up once they become aware of a problem knowing that they will have the support of the collective.

Union officials who have a responsibility for many workplaces will be in a better position to establish the "level playing field" and ensure that employers do not profit from taking safety shortcuts. Safety should be a common denominator equally applicable on all worksites without compromise in order to secure the protection of workers health and safety. It is totally unacceptable for the trade union movement to countenance work practices introduced by some employers that have the consequence of undermining those employers who are prepared to do the right thing and spend additional time and money to have the work carried out safely. Roving officials will have a good appreciation of what is available, practicable, achievable and acceptable to the workforce. The "state of knowledge" within the industry will be enhanced to the point where employers will not be able to argue that they didn't know what they were supposed to do.
Unions, who operate on a collective basis find it difficult to accept that their members, or other workers for that matter, doing exactly the same work get treated differently for no other reason than they are employed at a different workplace. This can even occur where the same employer is working on several different jobs at the same time.

Another phenomenon, which seems to apply to many workplaces is that the employers who have been educated in the correct methods at one workplace don't "stay taught". Often, the same employer will repeat the mistakes over and over again on different worksites only putting it right when they get pulled up again. The frustration that workers experience from this recurring behaviour usually manifests itself in the form of industrial action designed to capture the employers' attention and get action to rectify the safety issue without further delay.