Ep 18 Rebekah Jensen from Queensland Government talks about the changes to HSR Training

Brendan: Welcome to Episode 18 of the Australian Health and Safety business podcast. I’m Brendan Torazzi, the host of the show. Today, I’m with Rebekah Jensen who is the manager of Work Health and Safety Electrical Policy from the Queensland government. Good morning Rebekah, how are you?

Rebekah: Hi Brendan. I’m good, thanks. How are you?

Brendan: I’m well. Thanks very much for agreeing to come on the show today. Tell me a little bit about what you do Rebekah.

Rebekah: I’m the manager for the Work Health and Electrical Safety Policy team here with the Office of Industrial Relations in Queensland Government. Basically my role involves policy development around a range of work place health and safety issues. In particular a lot of my work involves the creation of legislation to improve safety outcomes for working in Queensland and just the day to day of managing the policy business in this portfolio of Queensland government.

Brendan: To get into that role did you do law at uni or was it something that you learned overtime through practicalities of working with health and safety?

Rebekah: I do have a legal background. I have worked in a number of different policy agencies across Queensland government. I also did start my early career as well here in the department in another role, in an industrial relations focused role. It’s just sort of been a little bit of everything to get here.

Brendan: I’d imagine there is never a dull day. What sort of stuff are you working on at the moment?

Rebekah: It’s never a dull day at all. The work programs in the area at the moment is extremely varied. One of the key instruments that we work on at the moment is the development of various industry codes of practice. Your listeners would probably be aware that there has been a lot of media coverage around the risk posed by respirable crystalline silica to workers particularly workers in the stone bench top industry. There is a lot of work going on in that area at the moment. We really do a grab bag of issues. There’s something new coming up every day. A lot of it is urgent and important and requires a quick response. It’s never a dull day.

Brendan: That is the thing that you have to prioritize all the time I would imagine. What is more important than other issues and get a bit of a list happening I’d imagine.

Rebekah: Lots of list making for sure.

Brendan: What I originally approached the department about was the changes health and safety reps. For those of our listeners that don’t know could you just give us a bit of a background on what has changed with HSRs in Queensland.

Rebekah: If it’s okay with you Brendan is just have a chat about what the role is and what it entails for those who are not familiar. Basically Health and Safety Reps or HSRs were established under the Work Health and Safety Act in recognition of the effective participation of workers in their own work health and safety interest is a really important way of improving health and safety performance in the workplace. It’s really about getting that engagement on the ground amongst workers.

In terms of how the framework actually operates. Basically health and safety reps are elected by their own work groups within a workplace. What I mean by work group is basically a group of workers on a work site who share a similar work situation, involved in similar kind of tasks on the site. The act actually allows for one or more work groups at each workplace. There can be more than one work group and more than one HSR.

The act gives HSRs some important powers. This includes the power to inspect their workplace from a health and safety point of view, to be present at interviews around health and safety incidents and also to receive and share information regarding health and safety matters with the management at their work site. They can also request establishment of health and safety committees to help guide the work health and safety approaches in the work place. Probably most significantly is if an HSR becomes aware of a safety issue on the site they actually have the power to direct work to cease on the site and they can issue a provisional improvement notice. That really requires the business or what we call person conducting a business or undertaking in the legislation to basically fix up or take actions that they need to take to prevent a breach of the act.

Brendan: In practicality do you see that happening much across industry?

Rebekah: What I can say is at the moment we’ve got 4500 HSRs across Queensland. We’ve got 481 businesses who have HSRs in their sites. What this has resulted so far is 12 provisional notices being lodge with the regulator. It does happen.

Brendan: Not fantastic that we’ve got the PINs being registered but just all that detail on what the stats are.

Rebekah: The role of health and safety representatives is not window dressing. There is real functionality to it.

Brendan: I imagine if you’re an HSR you’re only going to issue a PIN when you’re banging your head against the wall and you can’t get things resolved. That is kind of the last straw so to speak.

Rebekah: That is right. It’s always important to as an employer is to approach these kinds of relationships in good faith and positively.

Brendan: Those stats that you’ve got is that since the new legislation has been introduced? Maybe we’ll just circle back because there’s been a change now that the training for HSRs wasn’t mandatory and now in Queensland it is mandatory.

Rebekah: Correct. I’d have to take the question about the total period that fall on notice. I’m not entirely sure but if you like I can start talking about the specific changes that have happened in Queensland for HSRs.

Brendan: That would great.

Rebekah: It’s probably important for people to understand the genesis for the changes and why they’ve been made and where we’ve come from in this regard. I guess a lot of people would be aware and certainly in the industry, in the safety industry will be aware that in 2017 it was a best practice review of Workplace Health and Safety Queensland undertaken. This followed on from the terrible tragedies that we saw at Dreamworld and at Eagle Farm in Queensland. I guess the review really highlighted the unique role that HSRs have to play and contributing to making workplace safer.

Previously the legislation set out that persons conducting a business or undertaking have an obligation to train HSRs but this is only where it was requested by the HSR. What the review found was that a lack of compulsory training for HSRs was sort of hindering their ability to carry out their duties effectively and overcome I guess the concerns and just deal with their concerns about potential reprisals for taking action in the workplace, that sort of thing.

As a result the review made three key recommendations concerning HSRs. The first one was to basically reinstate provisions that were repealed in Queensland in 2014. That related to a requirement for employers to provide the work health and safety regulator here with a list of HSRs and Deputy HSRs for each work group. The second one was to require mandatory training for HSRs within a certain period of time of them being elected to the role and for this training to be refreshed at regular intervals. The third one was to require businesses to forward to the regulator a copy of all the Provisional Improvement Notices that were issued by HSRs.

In response to these recommendations the government took action and we amended the Work Health and Safety Act to strengthen the functions of HSRs. If it’s okay with you Brendan, I’ll just talk through now what those changes were.

Brendan: Great, thank you.

Rebekah: Probably the one that is potentially that is most interested to listeners today concerns the training of HSRs. That is obviously particularly interesting for any RTOs out there that are listening. There is now a requirement for HSRs and their deputies to complete mandatory five day training course. That has to be done now within three months of their election to the HSR role. When a training course isn’t reasonably available, for example it might be a case of geographical remoteness and limited access to training then in that case the training needs to be taken as soon as applicable.

All the HSRs have to take refresher training. That consists of a one day course. That has to occur at least once every three years. What that means in practice is that the first refresher training has to occur three years after the initial training has been taken by the HSR.

Going back to the provisional improvement notices. It’s important to note that until an HSR has completed that approved training, they don’t have the power to issue those notices. That is really a reflection of the responsibility involved in kind of making that call on the work site. That is an appropriate kind of way that the legislation recognizes that. The legislation is quite clear now that if a worker chooses not to undertake the training that is required and within the time period that is set out they forfeit their eligibility to act as an HSR and they’ll have to be replaced in that role in the workplace.

Brendan: I’ve always I guess not understood clearly. Does it affect every single industry, every single business and what is the minimum amount of employees that you would have to have in a business before you need to have a committee?

Rebekah: It’s certainly the minimum number of employees that you need before you have an HSR is very low. I’ve have to confirm that for you but certainly it’s not an excessive number as I recall it.

Brendan: I might circle back to you on that. If you’re a small business with five people I would imagine it wouldn’t be practical to have these arrangements in place.

Rebekah: I’ll have to check for you because I don’t want to give the wrong information.

Brendan: 481 businesses, it does sound like a lot but I would imagine there are a hell of a lot more businesses in Queensland than that.

Rebekah: That is correct. I think one sort of key priority for Queensland government over the next 12 months is really to work with RTOs and with industry to kind of increase the number of HSRs across the state to really improve the quality and robustness of the training that is on delivery for HSRs.

Brendan: The program at the moment as I understand it’s prescribed in the sense that the department provides the training materials is that correct? Or is it up to RTOs to provide those materials?

Rebekah: I have to confirm that for you. What I do know is that the training courses have to be approved by the Work Health Safety Regulator here in Queensland. I believe there is a list of approved RTOs that can be found on our website as well. While we’re on that topic it’s probably relevant to note as well that there’s actually a place on the website the RTOs can apply to become an approved HSR training provider. On the website there’s a page for RTOs and there is a publicly available application form and a guide as well. That is something if there are any RTOs listening who are keen to be involved in that registered training that would be the way to start those inquires.

Brendan: When did the legislation actually come in, beginning of this year or last year?

Rebekah: What I’ll do is I’ll just clarify because there’s been little changes along the way that sort of relate to that question. Basically the mandatory requirement for HSR to complete their five day training course was introduced on July 1 last year. The requirement initially was for HSRs to complete that training course within six months of their election to the role. From February 1 of this year the timeframe is actually reduced to three months. What this means in practice is a worker who is elected to an HSR role on or after February 1 this year has to undertake their training within three months of their election. Any HSRs who were elected before February this year have a six month period from the date of their election to undertake their training.

There’s just been a couple of changes. This change was made to factor into account the fact that some workers who might be nominated or who might fill the role of HSRs can be on short term contracts. We know there is a link to short term contracts and industries that have high safety risks. We just wanted to make sure that we weren’t excluding people because of the nature of their employment.

Brendan: It’s good to have that background of why the changes were made. I guess putting sort of an objective hat on I guess particularly with private businesses if they don’t have to do the training then they probably won’t. I probably not going to say that for everyone but a lot of businesses unless they’re told that they have to there’s always some other pressing issue that needs to be addressed.

Rebekah: That is exactly right. It’s not so much a question of willingness. It’s more we all know that there are lots of work involved in running a business and lots of priorities and lots of competing time and cost priorities. Enshrining it in legislation is just a way to make sure that it does happen and HSRs do have the skills and training and support that they need to really perform effectively as a function of the workplace.

Brendan: It’s underlining for industries that it’s important.

Rebekah: That is exactly right. As I have said before it’s not a nominal role. It is something that we take seriously and is a position that really has a lot of potential in terms of achieving positive workplace change.

Brendan: What are some of the other things that the department have, I guess it’s an ongoing process to educate the community that this a new requirement and it’s needed. What other things do you know that the department are doing just to get the word out there?

Rebekah: I am not entirely sure of our broader engagement platform for HSRs. What I do know is that the department does have some mechanism in place to kind of continue to engage and work closely with RTOs for the next 12 months as they’re going to work on those training courses and I guess to maximize the opportunities there as well.

Brendan: The RTOs are the messengers in a way.

Rebekah: Correct. They play a key part in the safety industry and that is one major way that we could increase HSR representation.

Brendan: That is fantastic. Did you have anything else that we needed to add Rebekah before we wrap up?

Rebekah: No. I’d like to get back to you though on that number of employees and work groups. I’ll get into that and provide you with a clear answer on that one.

Brendan: What I’ll do is I’ll just include those stats in the show notes so that people have that info on the minimum number of employees that are required before you need to put on HSR roles in place.

Rebekah: That sounds great. Thank you.

Brendan: If people want to find out a little bit more about this online what would they Google to get to the departments?

Rebekah: It’s a little bit of a maze to get to the right page.

Brendan: That is why I’m suggesting to Google it rather than read out a web address.

Rebekah: What I can say there is work site Queensland website and if you search health and safety representatives or RTOs on that website in the search bar the relevant links will come up under there. We’ve got that list of approved RTOs. We’ve got the application forms and guides for RTOs as well. Also obviously lots of general information on HSRs and the role that they play as well.

Brendan: Thanks very much again for agreeing to be on the show. You’ve been very generous of your time and information. Hopefully we can get the word out there a little bit more.

Rebekah: No worries. It’s my pleasure.

Brendan: Thanks Rebekah.

Rebekah: Thanks very much. Bye.

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