THE ALP-led Senate Committee investigating Work Health and Safety of Workers in the Offshore Petroleum Industry has handed down its report, listing 13 recommendations that overwhelmingly adopt those submitted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

Largely ignoring the advice of industry representative groups and the independent regulator, the Senate Education and Employment References Committee’s report focuses on increasing the role and rights provided to unions and health and safety representatives (HSRs) in the offshore petroleum industry.

This includes significant amendments to the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 (“the OPGGS Act”) to offer unions and HSRs a role in safety closer aligned to that under the nationally-harmonised model health and safety laws, the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (“the Model WHS Laws”).

Examples of recommendations to this affect include:

  • that the OPGGS Act be amended to provide for consistency with the Model WHS Laws in regard to the rights, powers and entitlements of Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs);
  • that the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) be required to maintain a register of offshore HSRs;
  • that the OPGGS Act be amended to provide requirement for consultation with relevant unions in the development of safety cases;
  • that a union right of entry for work health and safety purposes be established under the OPGGS Act; and
  • that the OPGGS Act be amended to provide for equal representation of industry and workforce participants on the NOPSEMA Board, with the latter representatives to be nominated by the ACTU.

The full list of recommendations can be found on page vii of the report.

Of most concern to AMMA members will be the recommendation that a new union right of entry regime be established in the offshore oil and gas sector.

Industry groups including AMMA have strongly argued throughout this committee process that such a regime would be unnecessary, counter-productive to safety and productivity in the offshore sector and would undermine the specialist role and expertise of the independent federal regulator, NOPSEMA.

In relation to how its proposed new right of entry regime would work, the Committee recommended that the Act require:

  • operators of the facility to, as soon as possible, facilitate transport for the permit holder for right of entry purposes;
  • the cost of transport for the permit holder for right of entry purposes to be recovered from industry by a levy revenue to NOPSEMA; and
  • an ability for the permit holder to exercise entry for the purposes of inquiring into multiple suspected contraventions of the Act, including additional contraventions identified during the course of the entry.

In its submission to the Committee, AMMA said the OPGGS Act is robust and suitable to the offshore industry, and the specialist regulator NOPSEMA applies it in an effective and accountable manner.

Creating a new right of entry regime for unions in the offshore sector would open up such facilities to right of entry abuses seen in other workplaces and other sectors, AMMA said.

“The OPGGS Act clearly deals with the appropriate parties to enter offshore petroleum and greenhouse gas storage facilities for OHS inspections, being only inspectors from the relevant government authority NOPSEMA,” AMMA’s submission stated.

“AMMA further notes that the Act clearly deals with and limits what role there is for workplace representatives under the Act in relation to work undertaken at these facilities.

“Too often, rights under WHS laws have been abused and used as a means to achieve industrial relations objectives, undermining industrial relations legislation and genuine safety issues at the workplace.

“Union officials abusing their entry rights under WHS laws for industrial purposes, for example, is an ongoing concern for resources and energy employers.”

Dissenting Senators report

In their dissenting report, the Government Senators found that a “robust evidence base” to support claims the existing offshore OHS regime is inferior to onshore WHS laws was not provided.

“In the view of Government Senators a number of the recommendations do not constitute the best policy response for ensuring the strongest possible safety outcomes for workers in the offshore petroleum industry,” the Government Senators Dissenting Report stated.

“Australia’s offshore regime is highly regarded internationally and Australia’s offshore industry is one of the safest in the world with some of the lowest injury and fatality rates.

“The inquiry has not established a compelling case for substantial change to Australia’s regime for worker safety in the offshore petroleum industry.”

On the matter of union right of entry, the Government Senators said the existing laws allow for an HSR to receive assistance from a consultant, who could be a union official.

“Australia’s safety regime is tailored to the high hazard operating arrangements of the industry which requires a special regime and arrangements to best manage the risks,” they said.

“While recognising the positive role unions can play in entering a workplace to inquire into safety issues and take a constructive role in promoting OHS improvements, it is noted however, that there are ongoing concerns about union entry rights being used for other purposes, including industrial purposes. This is also evidenced by documented Federal Court decisions and Royal Commissions.”

Implications for members

While the Committee’s recommendations should be of some concern to AMMA members in the offshore oil and gas sector, it was unsurprising that a Labor-established and Labor-led inquiry would overwhelmingly adopt the recommendations of trade unions.

Some may however, be surprised at the level to which evidence provided by industry groups including AMMA and APPEA, and in particular the independent regulator NOPSEMA, was ignored, dismissed or refuted.

AMMA will be watching closely further developments in this area including any indication that the Committee’s recommendations are being considered for official ALP policy. If this was to eventuate the party, whether in opposition or government, should expect a concerted industry campaign, led by AMMA, against such change.

AMMA encourages any feedback, comments or further information sought by its members on this report. Please contact [email protected].