Policy context

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Policy context

National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy 2002–2012

Overarching national occupational health and safety policy in Australia is contained in The National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy 2002–2012. While primarily overseen by Safe Work Australia, the strategy is also supported in principle by governments in all jurisdictions, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the ACTU[1]. One of the strategy’s five priority areas is “to prevent occupational disease more effectively”, specifically through[1]:

  • data and research systems to provide more work-related disease data, including measures of exposure and the effectiveness of controls that can better identify existing and emerging risks to occupational health;
  • increased awareness of occupational disease issues and the need to control risks at source;
  • occupational disease risk assessment and control competencies (including knowing when to call for expert assistance) integrated into management, vocational, professional and inspectorate training;
  • better and more easily accessible practical guidance on the steps to prevent and control exposures; and
  • regulatory approaches considered, reviewed and modified where necessary to achieve effective controls.

As part of its research brief, Safe Work Australia (and its predecessors) has commissioned wide-ranging reviews of OH&S policy and practice[2].

In April 2010, Safe Work Australia announced that the new Australian Mesothelioma Registry would be managed by a consortium led by the Cancer Institute NSW and include some of Australia’s leading experts in asbestos related disease. The registry will replace the Australian Mesothelioma Register (which had operated since 1985) and collect notifications of all new mesothelioma cases from state and territory cancer registries and information on mesothelioma patients’ past exposures to asbestos.

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National codes of practice are in place to underpin the prohibition, control and management of scheduled carcinogenic substances in the workplace[3][4]. The extent to which Australian workers are protected against occupational carcinogens is determined by the rigour of enabling legislation and regulation, and its enforcement.

Regulation and statutory limits on workplace chemical and carcinogen exposure are controlled by a range of federal and state legislation, with agencies across all jurisdictions responsible for monitoring and compliance. Requirements include licensing of pesticides and agricultural chemicals, limits of exposure and particular handling procedures for specific carcinogens, listing of carcinogens under toxic substances or poisons acts and regulations and guidelines on safe handling of particular carcinogens published mainly by state-based workplace authorities.

The regulatory framework is complex and fragmented, partly because carcinogenic substances are variously regulated as workplace hazards, consumer products and environmental pollutants. In 2002, at least 15 different agencies across only two jurisdictions, the Commonwealth and NSW, had some regulatory responsibility for carcinogens.

There is no clear and comprehensive data on the implementation and effectiveness of regulations designed to reduce occupational exposures across jurisdictions, and no national agency with a remit to collect and publish this important information.

Safe Work Australia has announced its intention to standardise occupational health and safety legislation nationally[5]. The optimal model for standardisation is currently being discussed.

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National Preventative Health Taskforce

The Government’s National Preventive Health Taskforce’s 2009 report, Australia: The Healthiest Country by 2020 – National Preventative Health Strategy, recommends workplaces as vital settings for the introduction of health promotion programs[6]. The report notes that as well as improving the health of employees and their families, workplace programs may improve productivity and reduce occupational injury.

The taskforce has specifically identified a 'major opportunity' to build on the Council of Australian Governments’ Healthy Workers initiative (part of the National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health[7]) with the “development of a national trial of integrated workplace health improvement programs based on the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) WorkLife Initiative, involving partnerships between state and territory occupational health services, volunteer enterprises and nominated research centres”[6].

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National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Awareness and Management in Australia

In June 2012 the Australian Government established the Asbestos Management Review to make recommendations for a national strategic plan to improve asbestos awareness and management.

The National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Awareness and Management 2013 – 2018 was released in July 2013. The plan sets out a national approach to asbestos eradication, handling and awareness in Australia with the aim of preventing harmful exposure to asbestos.

The Asbestos Management Review had noted that the management of asbestos is regulated by all levels of government in Australia. Local, state, territory and Commonwealth agencies operate under an array of legislative instruments to cover workplace, environmental and public health contexts. The division of responsibility had resulted in a variety of approaches to dealing with the management of harmful asbestos. The national strategic plan recommended a framework which jurisdictions work both cooperatively and independently in order to prevent exposure to asbestos. The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency was established by the Australian Government in 2012 to promote the national strategic plan.

James Hardie

James Hardie was Australia’s largest manufacturer of asbestos-containing materials until the mid-1980s. In 2001, James Hardie established the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation (MRCF) to address all future asbestos claims. In 2004, the NSW Government commissioned a judicial inquiry into the MRCF and found funds for asbestos victims to be inadequate[8]. Following the inquiry, James Hardie agreed to pay compensation through a voluntary compensation fund. In 2012, the High Court of Australia found that seven former directors of James Hardie had breached their duties by approving the release of a misleading statement that the MRCF was fully funded.

ACT - Mr Fluffy

During the 1960s and 70s, a Canberra based company known as ‘Mr Fluffy’ installed loose-fill asbestos insulation in approximately 1000 houses in the ACT, Queanbeyan and surrounding areas. In December 2014, the ACT Government announced a buyback scheme for all houses affected by Mr Fluffy loose-fill asbestos insulation in the ACT. The ACT Government has offered to purchase all affected houses for site remediation by eradicating exposure risks to loose-fill asbestos. The NSW Government has announced a “Make Safe” assistance package for NSW residents who have loose-fill asbestos in their homes to assist with safely managing asbestos.

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  1. 1.0 1.1 National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. National OHS Strategy 2002–2012. Safe Work Australia; 2002 Aug 8 Available from: http://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/sites/SWA/about/Publications/Documents/230/NationalOHSStrategy_2002-2012.pdf.
  2. Gunningham N, Bluff E. Review of the key characteristics that determine the efficacy of OHS instruments. Canberra: Office of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, New Zealand Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Committee; 2008 Available from: http://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/sites/SWA/about/Publications/Documents/333/Review_KeyCharacteristicsThatDetermineEfficacy_OHSInstruments_2008_PDF.pdf.
  3. National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. National Model Regulations for the Control of Workplace Hazardous Substances, Part 2 [Scheduled Carcinogenic Substances]. Canberra: Safe Work Australia; 1995. Report No.: NOHSC:1011(1995). Available from: http://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/sites/SWA/about/Publications/Documents/239/NationalModelRegulationControlOfScheduledCarcinogenicSubstances_NOHSC1011-1995_PDF.pdf.
  4. National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. National Code of Practice for the Control of Workplace Hazardous Substances, Part 2 [Scheduled Carcinogenic Substances [NOHSC:2014(1995)]. Safe Work Australia; 1995 Jan 1 Available from: http://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/sites/SWA/about/Publications/Documents/240/CodeOfPracticeControlOfScheduledCarcinogenicSubstances_NOHSC2014-1995_PDF.pdf.
  5. Safe Work Australia. Model OHS Legislation Fact Sheet. Canberra: SWA; 2009 [cited 2009 Nov 10] Available from: http://www.alrc.gov.au/sites/default/files/pdfs/CFV%2019%20Attachment%20ACCI%201.pdf.
  6. 6.0 6.1 National Preventative Health Taskforce. Australia: the healthiest country by 2020. National preventative health strategy – the roadmap for action. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2009 Jun 30 Available from: http://www.preventativehealth.org.au/internet/preventativehealth/publishing.nsf/Content/nphs-roadmap/$File/nphs-roadmap.pdf.
  7. Council of Australian Governments. National partnership agreement on preventive health. Sydney: COAG; 2008 Available from: http://www.federalfinancialrelations.gov.au/content/npa/health_preventive/national_partnership.pdf.
  8. Jackson DF. Report of the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Medical Research Fund and Compensation Foundation/ D.F. Jackson Q.C. Commissioner. Sydney: New South Wales. Special Commission of Inquiry into the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation; 2004 Sep Available from: http://www.dpc.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/11387/01PartA.pdf.

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