|Issue No. 142
|28 June 2002
Interview: Safe as Houses
Safety: Ten Steps to Safety
History: Staying Alive
Unions: Choose Life
International: Seoul Destroyers
Corporate: Crash Landing
Activists: The Refusenik
Review: Dumb Nation
Poetry: Helping Out The Rich
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Good News from the Pilbara
Go Mark, Go
Safe as Houses
What are Labor Council's expectations of this week's safety summit?
The expectations are that they'll be some strategies put in place to ensure greater compliance, with the law. We'd particularly want to see strategies that deal with employers who don't comply with occupational health and safety legislation. The end game is to ensure the law work so that here are less accidents and deaths in the workplace.
What are the sort of examples that are coming to your attention of the practices that are breached in the OH&S Act, what are some examples?
Construction is a classic example of a high-risk industry and there are regular serious injuries and sometimes death. While the industry is dangerous, it is also riddled with employers who regularly flout the law. There's a whole range of other areas in manufacturing, warehousing and distribution where you see lifting injuries, recurring injuries. At least anecdotally there's a correlation between the law-breakers and where these injuries occur.
There are also issues associated with getting injured worker back into the workplace and rehabilitation. This was the government's focus through the last round of workers compensation reforms but the jury is still out on how effective this has been. There's got to be some significant strategies put in place to see those changes implemented, so that workers are able to go back to work.
More generally, we want the government to look beyond running expensive and glossy ads and put more resources into prevention. Whilst the ads might make people feel good, the reality is that on the ground, I don't believe much has changed.
How can one make safety a priority for employers when they are faced with conflicting pressures like cost and competition?
Well, I think, there's got to be an incentive and it's got to be an economic one. That means looking at things like performance-based workers compensation premiums, where good performers are rewarded and incentives are greater to have a safe workplace than to ignore safety.
I also think government can improve the policing of safety in the workplace. The fact is that workplace safety isn't given the same regard as monitoring driving on the roads. I think there ought to be a unit within WorkCover that actually goes out and randomly inspects workplaces. It used to be the case but as we've moved more towards the deregulated model of Occupational Health and Safety, risk management, risk assessment for the employers, we are seeing areas where safety is declining. I think there's still a role for government to be actually out there policing and monitoring these things and they ought to be considering that.
There's no random safety checks at the moment?
Well, the argument from WorkCover is that there are but the reality is that there's insufficient staff to deal with the issue. When people ring up and ask for matters to be dealt, it is sometimes difficult to get something done in those areas. I think that's just a reflection of the attitude of governments over the years of all persuasions, moving more towards the deregulated model of workplace safety.
That might be very politically popular with some people, but the reality is that many workers in this country find themselves working in more precarious safety situations than might be the case if employers knew there was a chance that a WorkCover inspector was going to or could, attend a particular workplace at any given time. It's a bit like the philosophies that underlie random breath testing. It's to encourage people not to drink and drive, because you just don't know where the random breath testing will be. Well the same sorts of philosophies and approaches ought to be applied to workplace safety. There ought to be random inspections by WorkCover inspectors so that employers just don't know when or where they're likely to be.
The other part of the equation of course, is penalties. The government over the last period has significantly increased the fines that can be labelled against employers but there is still the issue of actual criminal sanctions. That was an issue at the ALP conference and its one that unions and the party are grappling with. Where do you stand on it?
Well, I think that there needs to be more done. One of the problems with penalties is that it's always after the event. Now whilst there's an economic incentive for potential prosecution, the fact is there aren't sufficient prosecutions being carried out. That's not necessarily a reflection on the people who do that for WorkCover, I think its more a question of resourcing. There ought to be more done with prosecutions, there ought to be greater publicity of those prosecutions so that the messages are getting out. The fact is that if there not well publicised they don't have the effect they ought to have.
I think many employers just look at what the maximum fine is and we discover that far too often the maximum penalties are never applied. I mean I think the classic example Dean McGoldrick, that young apprentice who died in the construction industry, my recollection is the company was fined $20,000 for a death. It's just absurd.
I think the government should do things like implement guidelines for those prosecutions. I mean they have sentencing guidelines for a whole range of areas now and I think it's a strategy governments could consider, where they actually establish in conjunction with the courts, guidelines for these sorts of penalties prosecutions and the penalties that ought to be applied. That would still give the courts a discretion, but clearly there are an agreed set of guidelines as to what the discretion ought to be and what the level of penalties should be.
What about the push for an actual crime of industrial manslaughter?
Well, I think that there are obvious difficulties with the current provisions that exist. There's conflicting views as to whether or not you can or can't be prosecuted for manslaughter because of a workplace death. I think those issues need to be clarified. Our advice has been up until fairly recently that there is capacity under the Crimes Act for prosecution. The disappointing thing has been that nobody's been prosecuted that I'm aware of for manslaughter where there's been a death in the workplace. I think the government needs to take a whole range of steps in the direction of ensuring that those prosecutions do in fact occur where there's a death in the workplace.
They are the sorts of things that will have an impact on people because employers, once they know they can potentially go to jail are going to be a lot more focused on workplace safety than they currently are for fear of those things. The fact is that law and order and the whole agenda behind it, is very much about increasing the sorts of penalties and particularly incarceration to drive crime down. I think manslaughter or a death in the workplace is a crime, and government ought to be adopting the same sorts of strategies to those crimes as they do for the other law and order issues that they're running around talking about.
September 1, there's new laws in place that means that there is an OHS committee or an OHS rep in every workplace. What impact do you think that will firstly on safety?
Well providing these people are properly trained and allowed to operate effectively without living with fear or intimidation, I think it could make a huge improvement to safety. Workers generally know where the safety issues are so there's a huge potential there to drive the level of accidents down. If it works properly it has the potential to make significant difference to workplace safety.
Polling still finds workplace safety one of the real big ticket items in terms of worker concerns. Do you think unions have done enough to work with the issue to organise workplaces?
Probably not, some unions do it better than others but on the whole, probably not. I think part of the issue is that occupational health and safety is seen as a very specific issues because there's a lot of technical detail associated with it. It's not an area that most organisers are familiar with, and I think that we need to doe more about training fulltime officials, organisers, and rank and file activists, in their rights and their responsibilities in regards to occupational health and safety. I think this new regulation provides us with an opportunity to do that. We are initiating, through the Labor Council with Mary Yaager, a whole range of training packages for officials and rank and file delegates and activists around this whole area: what their rights are, what their responsibilities are and the opportunities that that presents.
It's 12 months almost to the day since the workers comp dispute boiled over outside parliament. A year on do you see the environment for unions to work around OH&S issues has improved, got harder, stayed the same?
I think the new regulation, by all accounts, provides a better opportunity. But like all these things I think the proof of the pudding is always in the eating, and at the moment it remains to be seen. I guess you might need to ask us in another 12 months. There were some improvements that we got out of the government, and the fact is the Act is not as bad as when it was first introduced. In regards to occupational health and safety, I still think the environment itself is still pretty much the same, it might change, and the potential is there after September with the new reg.
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