PARTNERSHIP CASE STUDY Australian Workers Union A union’s innovative approach to occupational health and safety training became a catalyst for change and industrial harmony at Smorgon Steel. At the beginning of last century, Merriman had seen how training Steel Safety Coordinator. Democratically Australia’s steel industry was a tough, could be a catalyst for wider workplace elected by his peers, the Safety dirty and dangerous place to work. The change. This became the driving Coordinator’s role was to improve safety introduction of modern manufacturing rationale behind the AWU/Smorgon Steel while helping to improve communication. practices dramatically improved the Partnership Initiative to foster improved “It was a big step to take someone industry’s safety record. communication through a Level off the shop floor at full pay and put them More recently, a focus on Four OH&S training program. into the safety department,” explained occupational health and safety (OH&S) With a grant from the State Smorgon Steel OH&S and Training has made Australia a leader in the field. Government’s Partners at Work program, Manager Bob Davies At Smorgon Steel’s Laverton Mill, the AWU organised training for nine In due course, longtime mill worker workers and management have taken Smorgon Steel employees. Significantly, Paul Spier was elected – and has been workplace safety to a new level, using representatives from management re-elected ever since. it as a catalyst for wider cultural change. also took part in the 14-month program, “I see my job as first and foremost Bill Shorten, national secretary of joining team-based projects and working representing the workers,” Mr Spier the Australian Workers Union, explains: side-by-side with steel workers. explained. “I do a lot of work with “Traditionally this industry was quite rehabilitation after an injury and have dangerous but today the concept of PARTNERSHIP APPROACH a steady stream of guys coming to me continual improvement in workplace Mr Shorten said the training program about issues at work that might affect safety is fundamental to the business. helped to break down barriers and create their performance. I also find that I help This focus on safety gave the union and shared objectives. with some of the wider pastoral care management an opportunity to explore “While safety was a primary goal of the issues on site.” issues at the mill through the framework project, we saw the safety training process of a Certificate Four in Occupational as a tool for improving communication and ACHIEVEMENTS Health and Safety training program. building more sustainable relationships at The introduction of the Safety the site,” he said. Coordinator and the Level Four OH&S BACKGROUND Hand-in-hand with the training program training programs spearheaded important The project was initiated after a long running was a review of internal communication. changes at the steel mill. Management industrial dispute during 2002–2003. Led by a steering committee of has noticed a significant reduction in “No one was particularly proud of that management and union representatives, disputes and time lost to safety issues, dispute. It put a wedge between workers, the company conducted a series of while workers note the improved level of unions and management. Our guys were employee surveys and focus groups. safety and the more harmonious working forced to cross a picket line of their The results surprised no one. environment. mates,” Mr Shorten said. Communication between workers In negotiations over the 2004 EBA, In 2003 as negotiations for a new and management on site was “clumsy not a single day was lost. And since the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) and fragmented”. Even with the OH&S training was completed and Paul’s progressed, Mr Shorten and AWU best intentions, formal and informal position created, the plant has not lost a organiser Gavin Merriman approached communication channels regularly failed. single hour in safety-related disputation. Smorgon Steel management with a plan For others, the journey has been to improve safety and communications COMMUNICATION more personal. “This project has been among the 400-plus workers at the site. The survey findings led to the creation such a great opportunity for the people With a background in OH&S, Gavin of a new position – the AWU/Smorgon on the training course and those of us The Partnership Case Study Series examines better workplace practices in Victoria. www.irv.vic.gov.au All studies are published by Industrial Relations Victoria. PARTNERSHIP CASE STUDY: Australian Workers Union “We saw the safety training process as a tool for f KEY OUT-TAKES improving communication and building more • Be lateral when tackling workplace culture change. sustainable relationships at Smorgon Steel. The Changing one aspect of how you course involved working together and team-based do business can be a catalyst for changes elsewhere. assignments, which are ideal for bringing people together and building the skills to work cooperatively.” • Building trust in a workplace requires equal effort and commitment from all parties. Bill Shorten, Federal Secretary, Australian Workers Union If one party won’t “walk the walk and talk the talk’’ long-term change is rarely sustainable. responsible for steering the project,” “While this project was ostensibly Mr Spier said. “I have been a blue about improving safety it was also about • Defuse conflict between collar guy all my life and I didn’t have cultural change. The lesson being that management and staff by educational opportunities when I was pursuing change in one aspect of your putting in place agreed young, but now I have been able to business can lead to important changes mechanisms for change. get a formal qualification and use that in other areas, particularly if you are knowledge to help the guys I work with. open to that change.” I can see they are feeling more comfortable about bring up safety-and LOOKING TO THE FUTURE f PARTNERS AT WORK PROGRAM have confidence in how we deal with With the project judged a success by the • Partners at Work is a Victorian safety issues.” union and management, both parties are Government competitive grants While Smorgon Steel doesn’t reveal focused on continual safety improvement. program designed to promote its safety figures, it says accidents are A further training program is planned and workplace change that benefits all down and overall safety has improved. the AWU is hoping more Smorgon Steel stakeholders within an enterprise. Reporting of near misses has improved – workers will take part. The new model a sign that workers are more safety- of workplace cooperation has also laid • The program emphasises aware and more confident about the basis for the forthcoming increased employee participation reporting issues. negotiations over a new EBA. and improved workplace Certainly, the AWU and Smorgon relationships. LESSONS LEARNED Steel are confident they have created the Mr Shorten said one of the challenges foundations for long-term improvements • Businesses have used the of the project was measuring its in workplace safety and communications. Partners at Work program in success. “In our industry it usually takes an many ways to improve their “Certainly there have been accident to get people to spend money workplaces and organisational improvements in communication. on safety. This project has shown that performance. You can see that in terms of a lack given an opportunity, management and of confrontation and the dramatic workers can be proactive about safety. • The Victorian approach is for improvement between the unions Our workplace culture has matured management and employees, and and Smorgon,” he said. exponentially from where it was five their representatives, to be seen He advised others contemplating years ago – and we’re confident of as partners in the shared future similar projects to set clear milestones more change in the future,” Mr Spier said. of an enterprise. to keep the project team focused and to serve as a basis for measuring project outcomes. According to Mr Davies an important outcome of the project was the model of workplace consultation it established. The Partnership Case Study Series examines better workplace practices in Victoria. www.irv.vic.gov.au All studies are published by Industrial Relations Victoria.