Robens and Pre-Robens

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The 1972 British Robens report, Safety and Health at Work, transformed the attitudes and organisation of international and Australian occupational health and safety (OHS) from prescriptive to process style regulation (Johnstone, cited in Brooks 1990; Robens 1970-72). Robens changed the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders which led to the systems and procedures of today. The main strengths of Robens’ philosophy will be analysed by comparing the similarities and differences between the old and new OHS legislation. Through the comparison of pre and post-Robens legislation, valuable insights can be gained for the future of OHS.

Pre-Robens OHS legislation in Australia was based on the traditional British Factory Acts which Robens (1970-72) deemed to be unsatisfactory, ad hoc, haphazard, and difficult to understand and update. The quantity and complexity of the nine acts and 500 regulations led to their fragmentation and was counterproductive to safety, and even omitted some workers (Brooks 1993; Eddington 2009; Johnstone 2004; Robens 1970-72). Robens (1970-72) considered there to be too much law which was overly prescriptive and specific, complex and inflexible. Pre-Robens legislation addressed physical hazards rather than the attitudes, capacities and performance of people and their organisational systems.

The Robens Committee advocated the enforcement of the law through a new administrative mechanism rather than judicial procedures (Taylor, Hegley & Easter 1996). Robens (1970-72) deemed the old law to be punitive, unprogressive and paternalistic. It was dependent on state regulation with little involvement by workers or unions (Woolf 1973). Furthermore, it was difficult to administer and enforce, with a “daddy smack” (Eddington 2009, p. 3.13) approach to regulation. The system was failing with under-resourced inspectorates, inadequate penalties, and court procedures that were seldom pursued (Brooks 1990; Eddington 2009; Johnstone 2004; Ridley, J & Channing 2003). Consequently Robens thought the supervision and enforcement of government was over-regulated and counter-productive. It led to apathy being attributed as the main cause of accidents at work (Brooks 1993; Robens, cited in Johnstone 2004).

Australia gradually adopted Robens’ unified national approach to administration, and moved away from the existing complex, specific standards to a smaller set of broad, flexible general duties for workers (Robens 1972). The new legislation was supported by the labour governments and unionism of the 1970s and 1980s. It was driven by concern about the cost of industrial injury, illness and death in a time of increasing industrial competitiveness (Johnstone 2004; Robens 1972).

Rather than the state prescribing, policing and penalising, the post-Robens legislation of today is non-specific, generic, participatory and self-regulating. The legislation enabled the easier updating of regulations, voluntary standards and codes of practice under the acts. However the altering of legislation is still a lengthy process due to tripartite agreements (Eddington 2009; Robens 1970-72). The regulations changed from being prescriptive to being based on performance and process.

Apathy is addressed through broader standards, general duties, education and encouragement (Brooks 1993). Instead of being given specific instructions, the duty holder now has responsibility to work out the best, most efficient method to achieve safety standards and is required to increasingly document the process (Robens 1972). Inspectors prefer to advise rather than prosecute, consult and educate rather than coerce (Johnstone 2004).

However critics believe the culture of enforcement as traditional state regulation remains, and that the system was merely streamlined in an inexpensive manner (Lingard & Rowlinson 2005). The law continues to have shortcomings with duty holders being prosecuted for not doing everything...
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