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Thursday, 20 October 1983
Page: 2065

Mr STEEDMAN(9.18) —My grievance tonight relates to the conditions that many members of our work force have had to endure over the last few years, especially under successive Liberal-National Party governments. Recently in the media we have seen a lot of discussion relating to the large increases in workers compensation premiums and the increasing need for occupational health and safety legislation. The Labor Government in Victoria is currently enacting legislation that will be in the forefront of progressive policies to protect the health and safety of the workers of that State. The Federal Government is also planning legislation in this area, and I can only compliment the Government for this long overdue interest in workers welfare. Years of conservative rule at both Federal and State levels has allowed the work place conditions in this country to deteriorate so much that many factories and workshops are a positive health hazard.

It is very pleasing to see the union movement in this country taking an active interest in occupational health and safety. In the past, unions have been criticised for not taking an interest in the safety of their members, or for concentrating on negotiating danger money for their members engaged in hazardous work and in obtaining compensation for injured or sick members. There are a number of reasons why unions have taken these approaches in the past, for instance, the lack of a decent workers compensation system and the lack of bargaining power with employers, who preferred to pay extra money rather than fix up a health problem. However, I believe more important reasons have been a lack of support from government and a lack of access to information held by employers, government and scientific and medical communities.

In Australia it is estimated that work related deaths, injuries and diseases cost $6.5 billion a year. This is only an estimate, because at present we do not have proper statistics to measure the true cost. In 1974-75, the last year in which the Australian Bureau of Statistics published figures-I might add that it later refused to publish statistics because it considered them inaccurate; that is, too low, not too high-37,250 accidents were reported in Victoria alone. In 1980 the Victorian Department of Labour and Industry investigated 2,713 serious accidents, including 37 deaths. It must be remembered that because of serious under-resourcing in the past this Department investigated only a tiny proportion of the accidents. For instance, the Health Commission in that State is responsible for monitoring industrial deafness. In 1982 it revealed that 50,000 workers from 1,182 firms had been found to have notifiable hearing loss.

Another statistic which gives some indication of the problem is the number of workers compensation claims made in Victoria. At present the Workers Compensation Board decides approximately 12,000 cases per year and this number is increasing. These are only the contested claims, which represent 5 per cent of all workers compensation claims. The majority of these are for back and other muscular strain injuries, heart diseases and industrial deafness. These figures indicate that we are not successfuly dealing with well recognised work hazards such as dangerous and noisy machinery, heavy lifting and so on. Another major problem yet to be tackled is the use of chemicals in the work place. In the past an enormous number of these substances-glues, cleaners, degreasing agents and so forth-have been introduced into work places without any regulation by government and without due regard to the long term impact upon the health of those workers expected to work with them. The number of these potentially harmful substances is alarming. Over 43,000 are registered under the Toxic Substances Control Act in the United States and it is likely that there is somewhere near this number in Australia.

What is needed is an occupational health and safety commission or similar body to recommend regulations and codes of practice and give general advice to the Government on occupational health and safety matters. Most important will be the proposals to provide for workers' involvement in the decisions at the work place level which affect their own health and safety by providing for union-appointed health and safety representatives, with rights clearly spelled out, on health and safety committees. Following submissions from employers, the Victorian Government intends limiting the duty on employers to oblige them to do only what is practicable to ensure a healthy and safe working environment. It also intends imposing a corresponding duty on employees to do all in their power to ensure the health and safety of themselves and their fellow workers and also not to misuse health and safety equipment. The commission to be established in Victoria will be concerned with publicising health and safety issues as they arise and generally educating the community, including politicians, on the need for improved standards of occupational health and safety.

I believe that the involvement of employees in decisions about occupational health and safety in the work place is essential for the following reasons: Workers can contribute to prevention by keeping an eye on potential hazards and giving advance warning of problems before they become really dangerous and by pointing out urgent hazardous situations. If they are involved in these decisions workers will co-operate in promoting health and safety in the work place. They will also become more conscious of hazards. Workers often have the experience and practical expertise necessary for solving health and safety problems which arise in their own work place. It is only right that all individuals be involved in decisions which affect them. This is our democratic right. This is especially so when such decisions may leave individuals exposed to danger. It is also essential that workers be involved in these decisions through the union movement. It is vital to provide in legislation for unions to appoint health and safety representatives in the work place in the same way as they currently appoint shop stewards. I have only briefly skirted over some of the needs in the field of occupational health and safety. No doubt a lot more will be said when this Government introduces legislation or discussions on the subject in the near future. I believe we can learn from the Victorian experience and we have a chance to regulate, on a national basis, to make the work place safer for the citizens of Australia.

It has been one of the great shames in this country over the last few years, under the rule of the National and Liberal parties, with their lack of concern for the workers of this country that we have reached the situation we are in now . Members of those parties keep claiming they represent and work for small businessmen. They keep complaining about workers compensation premiums. It is quite obvious to even the most ignorant of us that workers compensation premiums will be high only if workers are hurt or injured. If we want to stop high workers compensation premiums, if we want to help small business in this community, we should make sure that our workers do not get run over, crushed, killed or work in dangerous environments. The union I represented until my election to this place was a group of blue collar workers who were constantly put under threat and into hazardous situations by local councils, especially rural councils. The cockies felt that they were a superior type of being and the workers were serfs. They treated them with total disregard and contempt and had them working in many hazardous situations. They were put into contact with carcinogenic substances as well as into situations which could result in sun cancer from the heat as they were put out in the heat of the day working on tar, and in other ways that our born to rule rural comrades did not care much about.

Opposition members interjecting-

Mr STEEDMAN —With all the whingeing that comes from members of the Opposition about the fees you pay for workers compensation, with all the whingeing and whining you do, if you looked after your workers, if you gave them proper safety conditions-

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mildren) —Order! I ask the honourable member to address the Chair and also to cease provoking interjections.

Mr STEEDMAN —Mr Deputy Speaker, if this leftover rump-

Mr Porter —You don't grow tar. How do you grow tar?

Mr STEEDMAN —What is that one again?

Mr Peacock —He wants to know where you grow tar.

Mr STEEDMAN —That is about the level of his intelligence. Son, you don't grow it . I say that through the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. If these people were fair dinkum about helping the small businessmen they would help them make sure that there were safe conditions in their work places. By investing a couple of thousand dollars here and there they might save workers compensation claims of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Finally, I hope that in the future the legislation introduced by this Government will make the work force in Australia safer. I hope that we will be in government for many years so that the born to rule beaters of the working class cannot take control again and put them back into the situation they were in. I hope we will introduce proper and reasonable legislation so that employees and employers will have an equal chance to survive in the market place, that workers compensation premiums will go down, that we will have safe workers and that they will not be crippled. They will not even be mental cripples, like the members from Tasmania.

Mr Goodluck —Mr Deputy Speaker, I take a point of order. In the absence of my fellow Tasmanians I ask the honourable member to retract that remark.

Mr STEEDMAN —I am quite happy to retract any remark about mental cripples in Tasmania because I realise that inbreeding causes that sort of thing.

Mr Goodluck —I take a point of order. I take offence at that remark. I am the only Tasmanian member here.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mildren) —Order! There is no point of order.