Are worker's comp boards serving return to work?

Tom Barton

And can you pick the Australian jurisdiction in which board members have NO hands-on experience of workers' comp?

Gone are the days of simply rubber-stamping executive decisions and ticking boxes of regulations. Today, creating an effective board involves understanding the way people work together.

The greatest challenge for a board is in cultivating a diverse social system within the group and facilitating its interaction. Directors should be individually and collectively capable of healthy argument, and have the willingness to challenge one another within an environment that represents all the interests and stakeholders in the organisation.

Membership should be drawn from all sectors relevant to the organisation and reflect the industry it operates within. Members’ contributions have greater weight and relevance if they are informed by specific industry experience.

What are the goals of WorkCover/WorkSafe?

WorkCover/WorkSafe boards oversee the system and legislation established to protect workers’ safety, provide advice and insurance to businesses, and administer the worker compensation system. Key roles of the system include injury prevention, return to the workforce if an injury occurs and fiscal responsibility.

It is reasonable to assume then that the membership of WorkCover/WorkSafe boards will have experience in relevant areas of worker’s compensation and represent stakeholders in the process of overseeing and developing the organisation’s policy.

So what are the stakeholder groups in the workers’ compensation industry?
  • Employees - Unions and return to work advocacy groups;
  • Employers – Industry associations;
  • Medicine – GPs, Occupational Physicians, rehabilitation providers;
  • Insurers;
  • Lawyers;
  • Finance; and
  • Policy Makers.
So how balanced are WorkCover/WorkSafe boards ?

Examining the membership structure of the various WorkCover/WorkSafe boards, two differing styles emerge. The first is comprised of members with a range of skills and experience, from Occupational Medicine to business, management to unions, legal, insurance, finance and politics.

The Board of WorkCover TAS for example, includes members with experience in:

  • Commerce and Industry, including OH&S;
  • Medicine, specialising in worker injury and illness;
  • The Law, with experience in worker’s comp;
  • Union representation with experience in OH&S and rehabilitation; and
  • Insurance, experience within workers compensation system.

NSW’s and WA’s member skill sets are also impressively broad, with both utilising skill sets from fields ranging from:

  • Business , industry and employers;
  • Financial;
  • Unions, legal;
  • Occupational Medicine, occupational and health sciences, injury rehabilitation; and
  • Insurance representatives.

While Queensland’s WorkCover organisation is actually the insurer there, Q-Comp is the state’s workers’ comp regulatory authority. Q-Comp board members’ backgrounds include:

  • Industry, retail;
  • OH&S– both policy and administration;
  • Medical – GP with worker’s comp policy experience; and
  • Unions.

There appears to be a large representation of OH&S and worker’s compensation experience at all levels.

While WorkCover SA does not list its members’ backgrounds online, parliamentary stipulations require:

  • Two members representing workers’ interests;
  • Two members representing employers’ interests;
  • One member with experience in rehabilitation; and
  • One member with experience in OH&S.

The two members of WorkCover SA whose backgrounds are listed on the website are the CEO, from management/admin in the health sector and the Chair, involved in financial management and planning.

Comcare, who look after Commonwealth employees and are also based in the ACT, are directed by the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission body. A brief look over their membership covers people from:

  • Unions;
  • Employees;
  • Employers;
  • Policy and Government workplace and OH&S roles; and an
  • Occupational Physician.

All of these authorities make a point of categorising their board’s membership by sector- representation. While we can’t comment on how these boards operate as an interactive group or on the quality of debate within them, we can acknowledge that they have the necessary diversity to suggest an understanding of how boards are best composed.

NT WorkSafe is unique. Under the Act the ‘authority’ is vested in the Executive Director, who reports to the Minister. There is no board, though a monitoring committee does have some limited responsibilities. The Executive Director’s job is to administer the entire Workplace Health and Safety Act of the Northern Territory. Similarly, ACT WorkCover is directed by the Work Safety Commissioner, who reports directly to the Minister.

On the other hand

The composition of the board of WorkSafe Victoria is significantly less diverse. Finance dominates the experience of board members above all else.

WorkSafe Victoria has seven out of seven board members who have financial backgrounds. While there are two members with additional experience in law, politics and psychology, there are no members with direct hands on experience in the worker compensation system. Yes, a doctor was recently appointed but that person’s medical qualification was gained early and his much greater life experience is listed as a merchant banker.

Yes, financial experience on a board is important for ensuring it fulfils its fiduciary duties of overseeing budgeting, financial management and ensuring that the investment of funds is undertaken responsibly. But how can a board whose primary collective knowledge is weighted so heavily to finance make informed and in depth policy decisions about matters outside of that narrow band of experience?

The questions

The standard of debate within a board and the skill of the Chair both have an enormous bearing on the quality of its performance. RTW Matters cannot comment on any of the above boards from this perspective. They may in fact all be fabulous at cultivating diverse, engaging debate from all levels of representation.

However, it is simple common sense that any group of people whose experience is limited to a narrow set of disciplines or perspectives will be constrained in making balanced policy decisions that reflect the needs of diverse stakeholders. The mere existence of a board dominated by financial experience alone simply confirms claimants’ worst suspicions - that they are just a number; that it’s only about the money.

Published 19 April, 2010