In a crucial step towards meeting the December 2011 deadline for the national harmonisation of occupational health and safety (OHS) laws, the Workplace Relations Ministerial Council approved the release of the exposure draft of model laws today.

The model laws will be open for public comment and submissions until 9 November 2009. Stakeholders have been strongly encouraged to participate in this process.

Proponents of harmonised OHS laws claim a national system will improve safety outcomes, reduce compliance costs and improve efficiency. There can be little doubt that a harmonised system will decrease red tape, however a demonstrable improvement in safety outcomes will be more difficult to assess.

Whilst harmonised laws certainly have much appeal for business, there will also be some teeth in the detail of the laws to contend with. The big ticket issues which have attracted extensive comment have largely centred on matters that demand attention when systems have failed, such as the positive duty on officers to exercise due diligence and penalty increases.

In addition to these matters, there will be some changes on a day-to-day level for businesses in many of the jurisdictions, for instance:

  • the person conducting the business or undertaking must consult with a broader group of people whose health and safety may be affected by a matter, including contractors; and
  • workers will have the power to cease unsafe work on reasonable grounds.

As expected, the union movement has been critical of the proposed harmonised laws. The Australian Council of Trade Unions' (ACTU) campaign claims removing the union right to prosecute 'waters down' obligations to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Various employer organisations have challenged this view, suggesting the union campaign has more to do with the expansion of union rights than safety outcomes.

The bulk of significant changes for business will be contained in the detailed regulations and Codes of Practice yet to be drafted. Compliance and enforcement policies will also have an important role to play in determining consistent regulation across borders.