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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8037


Mr GRAY (Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Development and Northern Australia) (12:20 PM) —I rise today to support the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008. It is a bill to create an independent national body that will improve occupational health and safety outcomes for Australian workers. This bill reiterates the Rudd government’s commitment to implementing safe work practices across Australia.

Statistics from the Australian Safety and Compensation Council show that, over the nine years from 1997-98 to 2005-06, around 147,800 compensation claims were accepted. These claims were from workers who were temporarily incapacitated for one working week or more, or permanently incapacitated, and the figure also includes compensation claims that result from fatalities. Nationally, over those same nine years, approximately 300 deaths occurred each year—that is, 2,700 people died from a workplace related accident in those nine years. That in itself is a difficult statistic to stomach, but what does it mean? It means sadness for families, it means poverty and anger for families, it means families are broken, it means kids do not have mums or dads, it means husbands do not have wives, it means wives lose their husbands. The story of workplace injury and workplace deaths gets played out somewhere in this country just about every day, and it is a story that we as a parliament need to be doing more about.

According to the peak workers body in my home state of Western Australia, UnionsWA, 460 people died in the workplace between 1988-89 and 2008-09. Statistics cannot convey the tragedy that has befallen 460 families in Western Australia. According to UnionsWA, there has been a gradual decrease in fatalities—from a high point of 36 in 1988-89 to a low point of 12 in 2005-06. Unfortunately, the figure increased to 25 in 2006-07 and 27 in 2007-08. That largely tracks the massive construction that is currently underway in both the resources sector and the CBD of Perth. But 460 fatalities in Western Australia over this period is clearly unacceptable. There were 136 fatalities in the mining industry, 104 in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries, 70 in the construction industry and 31 in the manufacturing industry—and 104 of them were young Western Australian men and women aged between 25 and 34. That is almost one-third of the total fatalities.

For families who lose a loved one to a workplace injury there is a terrible emotional and mental cost that cannot be measured. For the nation it also has an economic cost. It is estimated that workplace accidents cost the economy $34 billion a year. It is not as though good employers and managers—and most of them are good—do not see safety as a matter of priority. But it is a fact that accidents take place. They take place for a multitude of reasons, not least of which is that people take safety for granted.

One of the more significant industrial accidents to take place in Australia over the last decade took place almost exactly 10 years ago this week—the story of the Esso plant at Longford. In Australia and around the world there are constant and tragic reminders of the human costs associated with workplace accidents. At Longford, in Victoria’s Gippsland Region, Esso Australia Resources operates three gas plants to process gas flowing from wells in the Bass Strait. It also operates a crude oil stabilisation plant to process oil flowing from other wells in the Bass Strait. On Friday, 25 September 1998, at around half past 12 in the afternoon, a vessel in Esso’s gas plant No. 1 fractured, releasing hydrocarbon vapours and liquid. Explosions and fire followed. Two Esso employees were killed and eight others were injured. Gas supplies to the state of Victoria were severely affected for two weeks. On 12 October 1998, the Victorian government announced a royal commission in order to determine the cause of the explosion and the subsequent loss of gas supply.

It is worth remembering that there was a federal election at the time of the accident. That election was closely fought and it concluded in the days immediately following the explosion at Longford. It is also worth putting on the record that at no time did the then government, or the opposition, seek to obtain political advantage from the tragedy at Longford. Everyone stood side by side to understand exactly what had happened, to support the process of the royal commission and to ask why it could be that in a modern, wealthy economy such an explosion could have taken place and deaths could have resulted.

The royal commissioner carried out his work over a period of several years. The plant was rebuilt at a cost of $500 million and it incorporated new safety measures and staffing increases. Esso also announced that it would invest $100 million in the development and expansion of the Longford plant over the following two years. Whilst it is commendable that Esso has looked to improve its safety standards, it is disappointing that it took two fatalities to make it happen. Sir Daryl Dawson, a former justice of the High Court and royal commissioner of the Longford royal commission into the Esso gas plant explosion, commented on the realities of workplace safety. He stated:

The elimination of risk comes at a cost and it is apparent that those responsible are not always prepared to bear the cost and so you have, either implicitly or explicitly, a cost benefit analysis in which the risk of death or injury is measured in money terms against the cost of elimination of the risk.

That is an exercise which seems insensitive to say the least, and yet it is an exercise that must be carried out, consciously or unconsciously, all the time.

That is why employers are encouraged to make their workplaces safer, not safe.

That is an insightful comment that points to the disappointing reality of operating in a market based economy. It also points out that there are risks and they need to be appropriately mitigated but that risks will never go away. That is why a safety culture and enforcing safe behaviours is extremely important in a workplace context.

An overseas accident that had tragic ramifications occurred in 2005 in Texas City in the United States. The Texas City refinery is BP’s largest refinery worldwide and the third-largest refinery in the United States, with a crude capacity of about 460,000 barrels of petroleum per day. The facility is capable of producing about 10 million gallons per day of premium and unleaded regular fuel. Located just south of Houston, the plant includes 29 oil-refining units and four chemical units, spread over a 1,200-acre site.

The Texas City refinery produces about 2½ per cent of all fuel sold in the United States—enough to fill the tank of every car every seven seconds. Fifteen workers died and more than 500 were injured in the explosion which occurred at Texas City in 2005, just three years ago. It was one of the most serious industrial incidents of the past two decades. BP’s investigation report, entitled The cause of the explosion, has been discussed in detail. It stated:

Actions taken or not taken led to overfilling the raffinate splitter with liquid, overheating of the liquid and the subsequent overpressurisation and pressure relief. Hydrocarbon flow to the blowdown drum and stack overwhelmed it, resulting in liquids carrying over out of the top of the stack, flowing down the stack, accumulating on the ground, causing a vapor cloud, which was ignited by an abandoned white pickup truck with the ignition on.

No-one could have begun to understand the implications of an abandoned car with merely the ignition left on, but the consequence of a massive cloud of hydrocarbons drifting across that dumped vehicle was an explosion that killed 15 people and injured 500. The hydrocarbons industry is advanced and scientific and it understands the value of life and the value of profits. The work done by BP to understand the explosion has been transparent and has been transmitted around the world. In the company for which I worked previously, Woodside Energy, there was completely transparent access to the investigation and its conclusions. Furthermore, BP sent teams around the world to explain to other hydrocarbons companies how such a horrific explosion could have taken place and the measures that were being taken to ensure that it could not happen again.

Good governance requires that a whole range of metrics be measured, considered and placed on the table at board meetings. It is the case that good companies make safety a priority matter for boards to consider. It is not uncommon for board meetings to start with a safety report. It is not uncommon that analysts’ judgements about companies are based on their capacity to do a good job in looking after their workers. In industries that have danger and risk, it is known and understood that if you are going to attract the best workers then you must create the best safety environment. Although there are people killed every month in Australia’s resource sector, there is no doubt that our outstanding resource companies work very hard on their safety protocols and on ensuring that the triple bottom line—not only profitability and doing good business but also looking after the workers—is met in all contexts.

Even in the best-managed companies, accidents happen. In March this year a crane owned by New York Crane and Equipment collapsed at 303 East 51st Street in Manhattan. Seven people were killed and 24 others were injured. It was a tower crane, manufactured by the Australian company Favco, and it was 200 feet tall at the time of the collapse. I take an interest in this collapse not because an Australian company manufactured the crane but because the one thing that is apparent to supporters of the resource and construction industries is the need for safety. I have spent a lot of time in Western Australia looking at safety training at the CFMEU’s site, which carries out one of the most significant training operations in Western Australia. Their training operation was supported by the previous government, and one can see no good reason why the outstanding training done by the centre should not continue.

One of the areas that the construction industry pays particular attention to is the erection of cranes and crane safety. I visited that CFMEU training centre in Western Australia earlier this year, within days of the collapse of that crane in New York. The workers there were already being trained in understanding what had happened to that crane—how it had pulled away from the wall to which it was supposed to have been attached, how it folded back in on itself and how, when it fell, seven people, including several inside it and several working around it, were killed and 24 others were injured.

A construction worker on the 15th floor said he saw something fall and strike one or more of the girder ties, weakening or breaking the connections. ‘Out of the corner of my eye,’ he said, ‘I saw a piece falling, and then the crane pulled away.’ The collapse occurred as workers attempted to jack up the crane, raising its height to enable work to continue above on the 19th floor of a planned 43-storey building. The builders had city permission to raise the crane. The crane had been inspected a few days earlier, with no violations found. Accidents occur even though inspections happen. Accidents are prevented by a safety culture.

In Western Australia, UnionsWA keeps a record of the personal stories of people who have been affected by workplace injuries. Just down the street from where I live, no more than a kilometre away, construction commenced in 2002 on an office and warehouse facility which was of a tilt-up design. Tilt-up design involves large prefabricated concrete slabs being tilted into position to form the walls of a structure. It is a low-cost construction methodology, ideally suited to Western Australia, in which safety is paramount. The story I relate here is of a wall many metres tall, many metres long and weighing tens of tonnes, which collapsed because it was inappropriately suspended. A worker, Des Kelsh, was crushed beneath the falling wall. He is survived by his wife, Trish, and their children, Lucy-Ann and Cormac. He was working on a tilt-up wall that came down. When it came down he bled to death before anyone could even lift the wall to get in to help him. His wife says:

Every day I think about him. Every day I miss him.

Des Kelsh’s death caused a significant reconsideration of how tilt-up construction occurs in Western Australia and has had the positive effect of making a change in construction methodology. His death also reinforced what had been said previously by the CFMEU about the safety of such construction methodologies.

In 2007, Luke Murrie died on a construction site in the northern Perth suburb of Malaga. The CFMEU said:

Luke was a warm, happy young man whose boundless energy was infectious. He will be sadly missed but never forgotten by all those who were fortunate enough to journey with him along life’s path. The loss of a tremendous person like Luke at such a young age is made even more tragic because of the loss of opportunity. The opportunity to be a father. The opportunity to grow old. The opportunity to be a workmate to many more people. The opportunity to be a great construction worker and rigger and to be a positive influence within an industry which sorely needs that type of influence.

We all know of the accident at the Cloudbreak mine of Fortescue Metals Group Ltd earlier in 2008, where Nigel Taylor, 26, died. He had been married for just two months to his wife, Lisa. She said:

Nigel was an amazing man, we were married for only two months but the love that we had for each other will last an eternity. Nigel never got to experience many things in his life, moving into our family home or becoming a father. But one thing I am thankful of is that he died as my husband, that we had a chance to say our vows and express our love for each other.

In July of 2007, a 43-year-old delivery driver died when the Dingo minidigger he was using to move a shed on a construction site toppled and the raised arms of the minidigger landed on his neck. On 30 August 2007, a 21-year-old loader operator died when the bogger that he was using to backfill a stope rolled over, crushing him. On 10 September 2007, a 68-year-old farmer was killed when he was struck by the limb of a tree that he was felling on his farm.

We should remember that one of the most significant categories of workplace injury and death is the agricultural sector on farms. They are often workers who are working alone with equipment on unstable ground and often working to a deadline—perhaps in the daytime with the light disappearing, perhaps because the seeding has to be done or perhaps just because they have had enough of the job and they want to get it done. Accidents happen and people get killed. On farms, of course, sometimes it can take days, or even weeks, before a death is discovered.

This bill does many things about process and design but, most importantly, it brings to the attention of our parliament and brings into focus for industry the importance that we, as a parliament, place on workplace safety and the right of every worker to turn up to work, carry out their work and go home healthy, fit and in the same condition as when they arrived. I commend the bill to the House.