||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
Ten Steps to Safety
Industrial manslaughter is the big issue on the minds of unions and they'll be rallying in Bathurst this week to make their point: employers will not take workplace safety seriously until someone is sent to jail for their contribution to a workers death. It's a contentious issue: NSW Industrial relations Minister John Della Bosca says the powers to bring criminal charges against an employer already exist. Unions ask, why then has there never been a prosecution?
Between 45 and 50 workers are killed each year in construction industry accidents that could have been avoided if the boss had put the required safeguards in place. Meanwhile the farming sector is losing an average of two workers per week. AWU president Mick Madden says penal provisions are needed. "Given that there are two deaths every week on Australian properties and the farmers seem to just accept this as part of life we need to send a clear message i.e. a 'wake up call' to them that this is not," he says.
2.Compliance, Enforcement and Prosecutions
It's fine to have safety laws, but are we enforcing them? When a workplace hazard is identified and the employer notified, it is expected the situation will be rectified expediently and in line with existing safety legislation. But many unions find the reality is often far less straightforward. Employers are routinely setting up new companies to escape having records of past industrial accidents used against them and there are insufficient legislative measures to stop them for repeatedly cutting corners on worker safety. CFMEU state secretary Andrew Ferguson says trying to get a prosecution against someone who blatantly and continually breaches OHS legislation is a massive ongoing problem in the building industry and in many other sectors. "When an employer is in effect guilty of causing injury or murder through their premeditated and willful disregard of safety laws, they should be prosecuted appropriately," he says.
3.Workload, Working Hours and Pace of Work
The combination of excessive demands placed on workers and an expectation of working extended hours can cause a range of stress related conditions, accidents, and sometimes death. MUA assistant secretary Sean Chaffer says fatigue is the "number one issue" for machinery operators. "Our guys operate and drive heavy machinery for long periods of time with no breaks in between. They want to know why the RTA has recognised fatigue as a major factor in road fatalities saying 'Stop, Revive, Survive' and yet we are in the same if not worst position," he says.
Stress caused by excessive workloads can also result in a range of other disorders. The IEU's Sharon Tobin says teachers are particularly prone to stress-related illnesses due to burgeoning class sizes, increasing expectations placed on teachers, and the absence of a cap on working hours. Tobin says it is not unusual for teachers to work between 50 to 60 hours a week. The IEU is currently dealing with the issue by negotiating shorter working hours on a school-by-school basis and holding seminars throughout NSW to increase awareness of the problem among teachers.
4. Violence and Bullying
Many employees go to work each day with the constant threat of violence or bullying hanging over their head. Bullying can result in stress, psychological injury, muscular skeletal conditions, immune system breakdown, stomach conditions and other stress related illnesses. Peggy Trompf from the Workers Health Centre says OHS authorities find it difficult to "pin down" and investigate bullying claims, especially when it is perpetrated by a supervisor. Workers fear repercussions such as losing their job or worsening the problem. NSW Labor Council and the Workers Health Centre will be establishing a committee to develop guidelines and policies for unions and Trompf says the Workers Health Centre hopes to provide a venue for a bullying support network that was mooted at a recent bullying seminar.
In the legal and health industries the threat of violence has been long recognised as a serious problem regularly encountered on the job. Drivers, bank and retail workers are also on the frontline when it comes to dealing with violent members of the public but because they work in largely privatized industries do not have the same entitlement to workers compensation, according to the TWU's Scott Connelly. He says that in the cash and transit industry alone there has been half a dozen hold ups in the past four months. The TWU is currently pushing for comprehensive counseling services to support victims of crime and workplace violence in the transport industry and for security cameras to be used "more as a safety measure and less as a disciplinary tool". It is also focusing on the 'chain of responsibility' for workplace violence, making clients responsible for setting unreasonable demands on workers that put them in danger.
5.Work Design, Work Practices and Equipment
Old and damaged equipment, poorly designed facilities and insufficient training in how best to use equipment can all lead to injury on the job. But old facilities are not the only ones to be poorly designed, according to the Nurses' Association's Trish Butrej. She says some new facilities are also having poor design built into them. Butrej says the problem is partially caused by a lack of clear guidelines for building design. Meanwhile the AMIEU's Patricia Fernandez says it is not unusual for meat workers to turn up to work on a Monday and be greeted with entirely new equipment, which they are expected to use without sufficient training.
6. Slips, trips and Falls
Slips, trips and falls can happen in almost any industry but for building workers the problem is particularly deadly. One of the most well-known cases in recent years is that of young apprentice builder Dean McGoldrick who lost his life after falling from a rooftop devoid of appropriate fencing or scaffolding. This is an ongoing issue for the CFMEU, which requires catch scaffolding to be used to protect building workers and people walking below building sites.
7. Manual Handling
Any worker required to move heavy or awkward objects is vulnerable to back pain and muscular strain. Workers need to receive training in the safest methods of lifting and need to be supported by appropriate equipment and assistance where necessary. The Nurses' Association's Trish Butrej says manual handling issues are closely tied with equipment and facility design and layout, but says it is also a staffing issue. She says two or more people are often needed to manually lift patients and also to use equipment but poor staffing arrangements can leave health care workers alone with the task. However, she says things are "gradually starting to improve". Aside from the safety benefits, she says organisations are increasingly realising how effectively managing manual handling risks can save significant sums of money in the long run.
8. Exposure to Hazardous Substances
With 44 workers dying each week from exposure to hazardous substances, Labor Council's safety watchdog Mary Yaager says this remains to be the "number one killer" in workplaces. Yet Yaager says she visits worksites on a regular basis and employers are still blasé about this issue, continuing to let workers be exposed to asbestos and other carcinogenic agents. "If anyone were to witness the horrific way that a person suffering from asbestos related lung cancer dies, (they virtually choke to death), they would not be complacent about this issue," she says.
Part of the problem is that workers are not trained in the risks associated with using chemicals. "Just last month a worker was thrown from a silo after the chemicals he was adding ignited causing an explosion and he received severe burns to the top half of his body," she says. NSW Labor Council will be calling on the government to mount a major campaign around this issue, concentrating on enforcement and the need to prosecute employers who breach the laws.
9. Accreditation Systems
The growing practice of outsourcing government responsibilities is continuing without appropriate checks on contractors' OHS records. Building Trades Group secretary Tony Papas the group will be pushing for an Industry Accreditation/Registration System to make it easy to identify who is taking their OHS and workers compensation responsibilities seriously. He says contactors who blatantly breach OHS laws should be expelled from government contract works. "There are so many dodgy contractors out there who are getting government contract work when they clearly they should not," he says. Under the accreditation system, government contractors' practices would come up for review on an annual basis.
10. Not Enough Power For Safety Reps/Employees
Finally, if safety representatives were given the legal power to issue provisional improvement notices at dangerous worksites, many workplace accidents could be avoided, according to the AMWU's Doug Rowland. "I am all too often called out to situations where avoidable accidents have occurred simply because employers have not acted quickly enough to correct safety issues," he says, adding that employees often tell him they have been trying to get things fixed for months. He says NSW is one of the few jurisdictions where this power has not already been put in place.
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