As a fascinating counterpoint to the introduction of the South Australia Work Health and Safety Act 2012 (SA) (SA WHS Act) on 1 January 2013, a Parliamentary inquiry into the effectiveness of Safework SA was commenced on 9 May 2012 by the Parliamentary Committee on Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation.

The precise rationale for the inquiry is somewhat unclear but appears likely to be connected to the political debate that continued throughout 2012 in relation to the introduction of the harmonised laws, and the stinging criticism levelled at SafeWork SA’s investigation practices by Coroner Mark Johns in his 2011 inquest into the death of Daniel Maddeley.

The terms of reference are to review:

  • the efficiency and effectiveness of SafeWork SA;
  • whether the responsibility for all occupational, health and safety issues should remain with SafeWork SA or whether some or all of that responsibility should be transferred to WorkCover; and
  • any other matter.

The broad terms of reference have provided a platform for a range of peak industry bodies, (including SISA, the MBA and Business SA) to speak their mind in relation to perceived organisational deficiencies in SafeWork SA’s operations, and raise problems with the implementation of the SA WHS Act.

The consensus from industry appears to be that a transfer of investigative and policy responsibility from SafeWork SA to WorkCover is undesirable. However, there is clearly a concerted push on the part of industry for reform to SafeWork SA as the State’s workplace health and safety regulator.

The criticisms raised have included that SafeWork SA:

  • was under-resourced in preparation for OHS harmonisation;
  • is not sufficiently consultative;
  • has inspectors that can be more adversarial than is necessary;
  • is lacking experienced inspectors, particularly those with specific industry experience;
  • does not collaborate or engage with industry; and
  • has suffered from politicised leadership.

Representatives of SafeWork SA have already appeared before the Committee, but will be provided with an opportunity to appear again in order to provide a response to the submissions that have been made.

To be fair to SafeWork SA, in earlier evidence to the Committee it was pointed out that since SafeWork SA’s inception in 2006 there has been ‘a demonstrated decline in the number of injury claims’ in SA, and that SafeWork SA also presents superior performance to WorkCover New South Wales and WorkCover Victoria by reference to national comparative performance reports.

However, industry clearly holds strong views in relation to how improved safety outcomes might best be achieved in conjunction with an active and effective regulator and has now been provided with a forum to make those views heard. Victim interest group VOID (Voices of Industrial Death) also made strong submissions about perceived deficiencies in SafeWork SA’s interaction and communication with the families of workplace accident victims. For the time being, it seems it is the ‘regulator on trial’.

The inquiry is ongoing.