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News & Views from the RTBU NSW Locomotive Division

New health and safety laws give HSRs stronger powers

Jul 18, 2012Update

The new Work Health and Safety Act and Regulations that came into force at the beginning of this year will provide new powers to WH&S reps but also some serious challenges to workers as employers seek to constrain the use of these new powers.

The good news is that the new laws have given Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) – previously OHS representatives – some legislative teeth. Employers are no longer obliged to train committee members, but elected HSRs are now allowed to ask for training from the employer, which must be delivered within three months.

These reps, once they have received training, also have two important new powers which must be used prudently in the workplace. The first is the ability to issue a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN). This is a legally enforceable notice that a problem must be fixed within a specified time period or the breach will be taken to court. This power was only previously exercised by WorkCover Inspectors.

The other change is that HSRs are able to direct that unsafe work ceases. It’s often difficult for a worker seriously concerned about safety on a job stand up to a boss alone. Now the employee can request that the HSR look at the problem and give the order to stop work.

As the new laws get up and running, the issue of the number of HSRs is of concern for the union and is already a source of friction with  employers. Currently employers consider it appropriate to have just one HSR for a large geographical region – they see the new powers as cutting into their management prerogative.

In reality to properly assess the health and safety risks there needs to be many more HSRs across the system. For example, where there is a day shift and a night shift where workers from each shift do not cross over, it may be sensible to have an HSR for each shift. Or at a station it may make sense to have an HSR for drivers and one for station staff.

The problem for members is that HSRs need to be elected from within a ‘workgroup’ and the employers are required to recognise the existence of each workgroup before an election can take place. This is creating a tussle as employers try to acknowledge as few workgroups as possible in order to limit the number of people who can wield PIN and cease-work powers.

Members are urged to look at their workplace and determine where it is possible to get better representation with HSRs.

For OHS Committees – now called Health and Safety Committees (HSCs) – not much has changed during the 12-month transition process. The law has allowed that existing committee members elected before the beginning of this year could see out their term, which led to a mad dash by employers to hold elections for committees so that they would be set for the next three years.

The main issue with the committees continues to be that they are advisory bodies only with no decision-making powers and, despite the fact that under the laws employers must ‘consult’ and consider their recommendations, committees cannot compel the employer to act.

As a result, the primary role of committees is to take an overview of the workplace and look at how the health and safety systems are managed, rather than dealing with day-to-day health and safety issues.

If you’d like to find out more, or  for dates for HSC and HSR training contact your union office.

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