IRV Case Study Australian Workers Union


          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.                                                             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
    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.                                                                       All studies are published by Industrial Relations Victoria.

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