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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8128

Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services) (6:41 PM) —I am pleased to rise this evening to strongly support the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008. The purpose of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 is to establish Safe Work Australia as an independent Commonwealth statutory body to improve occupational health and safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia on an ongoing basis. The bill is looking to simplify the current system and make it nationally consistent. It does not make sense to have multiple schemes. Why should different jurisdictions have lesser or greater safety standards than others?

The Safe Work Australia authority will be an inclusive, tripartite body representing the interests of the Commonwealth, states and territories as well as employees and employers in Australia. The bill will play a pivotal role in realising the government’s commitment to working cooperatively with state and territory governments to improve OH&S outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia. Safe Work Australia will be a reform focused body with the power to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council.

Occupational health and safety is a prime candidate for this sort of reform. The statistics are damning. Each year, more than 300 Australians are killed at work and many more die as a result of work related disease. Each year well over 100,000 Australians are seriously injured at work. These reforms are not just looking at death and serious injury; they are also looking at what people may see as minor injuries. These can have massive repercussions for individuals and their businesses.

In my old job as the National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union, I came across deaths, injury and disease in the workplace. As a union rep, my role was to ensure that workplaces were safe and to protect working Australians, to protect the rights of workers who had been injured previously and to seek equitable outcomes, as much as one can, for the families of those who were injured or worse. Trade unions have always led the way when it comes to improving occupational health and safety standards in Australia. Whether it is burns in the foundry, crushes in mines or falls at a construction site, these are all too often described as ‘accidents’. But it is not an accident, I contend, if it is preventable. Tragically, it is a fact that most people lose their lives in preventable circumstances.

In support of this bill I would like to draw the House’s attention to four arguments which I think underline the importance of this legislation. First of all, it is the basics which are killing people in Australia. In this I am heavily influenced by Dr Yossi Berger, the National Occupational Health and Safety Unit Director of the Australian Workers Union, a considered thinker and a person of great action in saving people’s lives. Fitting guards on machinery still does not occur in Australian workplaces. The absence of lights and reverse beepers on mobile plants still kills people. Sixty years ago, not taking basic measures, like having first-aid kits stocked and accessible and ensuring that the hazards which lead to falls were well marked and guarded against, was causing 80 per cent of all the deaths in the workplace. Sixty years later, the killers and the causes are the same, and the culprits are still not caught.

Mr Katter —Minister, if you would take an interjection: this time last century, one in 32 of us who went down the mines died. The union was very helpful in—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DS Vale)—Order! The member for Kennedy!

Mr SHORTEN —I thank the member for Kennedy for his learned contribution. I appreciate that.

Mr Katter —Theodore and the AWU.

Mr SHORTEN —The member for Kennedy’s father was a great delegate of the Australian Workers Union, and we are grateful. It is obvious that we need to devote our full attention to the fundamental causes of deaths in our workplaces. You have to wonder how they can still happen.

That leads me to the second proposition in support of this legislation. After every workplace disaster—including the workplace disaster at Beaconsfield, in which Larry Knight was killed and Todd Russell and Brant Webb miraculously survived due to the efforts of their workmates and the whole community of Beaconsfield—there are the inquiries. On the Beaconsfield disaster, there was one conducted by Greg Melick, Senior Counsel, and the Tasmanian Coroner is investigating the matter again. Each inquiry will make a number of recommendations. We seem to have this utopian assumption that each time that people die and we have an inquiry, we will learn the lessons of the past and somehow safety will progressively improve. Logically, if this is the case, all disasters should ultimately stop. Clearly, though, this is not happening in Australia. You have to ask: why aren’t we learning the lessons of the past?

Research on mining disasters conducted by the AWU and research on the disaster of the Westralia and disasters in Nova Scotia and South Africa—12 different mining wardens inquiries, courts of inquiry and royal commissions—reveals not only that the inquiries have a lot in common but that the disasters have a lot in common, regardless of the continent on which or the industry in which they occur. I can predict now that the next inquiry into a tragedy where people are killed will recommend more training and education. I can also predict that the next inquiry into a set of fatalities will predict changes to equipment, standards, processes and the duties of specific personnel on site. Based on what has happened in the past and our health and safety amnesia, I have no doubt that the next inquiry will recommend improved occupational health and safety systems and more government oversight. However, I can also predict with absolutely no fear of contradiction that it is very likely that in the next disaster we see—like all the ones we have seen over the last 100 years of Australian industrial history—there will be no recommendation for legal action against the company or senior personnel and almost none against nominated individuals to be held personally responsible for making sure that the inquiry’s recommendations follow through.

One thing which I will be putting to the new Safe Work Australia is the need to employ more historians, because the lessons that we will learn in the future are merely those that we have forgotten in the past. Wherever there is an inquiry, in this place or elsewhere, someone should be made responsible for ensuring that, after we hold an inquiry and review the recommendations, in two, three, five and 10 years time, those recommendations are still being honoured. I think that this is a crucial lesson in health and safety.

We know that there is rarely a smoking gun in these disasters—certainly not that I have seen. There is very rarely a single event or a single person at which we can point the finger at and say, ‘You did this.’ Blame for the sake of itself is not useful; blame does not bring back the dead. What we need to know is that the recommendations of the next inquiry will be followed through. Someone has to be put in charge whenever problems occur, to evaluate how effective the changes are and to see if the new lessons are working or not, and someone must be available to fix them. I believe there need to be penalties attached if recommendations are not put in place in a timely fashion, to make sense of the useless waste and tragedy of people’s injury and death.

We know, furthermore, that communication is fundamental to the success of all agencies in health and safety. Safe Work Australia itself cannot guarantee the safety of all workers. For instance, look at diazinon. My old union and I argued for 12 years that the chemical diazinon should have no future. It was argued by other interests that diazinon is cheap and effective. Certainly it was never argued that it could be a fatal chemical and it regularly and seriously harmed workers. It was explained to us, ‘But diazinon is the economical product in rural industries.’ It was never explained that it attacks the nervous system, resulting in long-term ill health and sometimes death. We were told that farm workers cannot have the protection against diazinon of putting on a space suit to try and keep diazinon from their skin—‘That’s not the real world of the farm; don’t you understand?’ After 12 years, diazinon was phased out. Yet for more than 30 years before that it had been known that organophosphates—of which diazinon is one and sarin gas is another—are deadly. We know that two-thirds of all occupational fatalities are from chemically related diseases and by far the majority of these deaths happen in regional Australia. Time and time again we see workers harmed and families suffering while those who should know better do nothing.

I believe that Safe Work Australia should have discussions with the chemical manufacturers and should be encouraged to work with the people who work with the chemicals to look at the safest solutions. It comes down to cooperation. It is in the interests of all of us to keep workers and the sectors in which they work, including the agricultural sector, in good health. We need to find more solutions, and we can certainly find more solutions if there is less suspicion and more cooperation and if some people’s knee-jerk fear of trade unions was replaced by a sense of gratitude for all comers who wish to assist in making the place safer. After all, if a chemical can harm a worker, if a chemical can creep in through the most stringent safety measures, it should not even be on the market. It is a simple as that.

Indeed, workers need to feel that they can raise safety issues on a daily basis without fear or favour. They must feel confident that OH&S issues will be addressed by management and that their concerns will be taken seriously and dealt with promptly. I like this legislation because I support the empowerment of workers and the protection of their rights—and the right to a safe workplace should be the first and foremost right. The cost to our economy of work related disease has been estimated at $34 billion per year. This is an estimation of only the injuries that have been reported. Other speakers in support of this bill have identified the curse of asbestos, and the high tide of death from that disease has not yet fully hit the shores. But it is fair to say that, by the time asbestos has worked its way through the Australian workforce, more people will die of asbestosis and mesothelioma than died in the whole of World War I.

If we look at all the injuries that occurred beyond those dreadful killers that I have already mentioned, I think that we can do a lot better. When we look at the economic costs of workplace injury, death and disease, we see that they are significant losses. But, when we compare them to the costs of those injured and the effect on their families, workmates and friends, the cost is immeasurable. I think of men I have met before explosions and the catastrophic amputations they suffered, people sitting in rehabilitation wards with no legs and people who have had their lungs burnt to within an inch of their life by dirty aluminium smelt, and I can see the cost of what has happened to them, and the cost to their family and friends. I know the father whose child was born on the night that he was on a shift and then came home four weeks later in burns bandages. His child has never seen him in anything other than a full-skin burns suit. I like this legislation because the focus of its reforms is on prevention. We are looking at something which could save the lives of Australian workers who unnecessarily lose their lives every year.

Safe Work Australia will run a communications strategy to raise awareness of health and safety in the workplace and safe practices which minimise harm. It will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, established by the Howard government as an advisory council whose functions were confined to coordinating, monitoring and promoting national efforts on health and safety and workers compensation. This new body will have substantive powers and responsibilities, unlike the previous pale imitation. It will develop national policy relating to OH&S and workers compensation, prepare, monitor and revise OH&S model legislation and develop compliance and enforcement policies to ensure nationally consistent regulatory approaches across all jurisdictions. It will develop proposals relating to the harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements, collect, analyse and publish OH&S and workers compensation data and undertake and publish research. It will develop national communication strategies to raise the awareness of health and safety at work, and it will further develop the National Occupational and Health Safety Strategy 2002-12. It will advise the Workplace Relations Ministers Council on these matters.

We will see review and revision of the effectiveness of the authority within the bill. We will ensure that there is an active body operating efficiently and responsibly in meeting its strategic and operational goals. The Rudd government has set itself the task of creating a seamless national economy, unhampered by unnecessary duplication, overlap and difference. The establishment of Safe Work Australia is an essential part of the government’s strategy to improve safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements across Australia. This government has undertaken a review of the Comcare scheme, set up an independent panel of experts to undertake a national OH&S review and developed a landmark intergovernmental agreement with our state and territory counterparts to harmonise OH&S laws.

This legislation complements the most valuable tool of all in workplace safety. I would like to report to the House that Bill and Melinda Gates have an idea on the drawing board for little robots to travel the length and breadth of mines, quarries, hospitals and civil service buildings. Every hour these little robots would send back weak signals—OH&S messages. Rather than an orderly saying, ‘This doesn’t feel right,’ or perhaps a miner saying, ‘That machine is making a noise different to the one that I have heard every other day I have come here,’ or ‘At the start of my shift, this particular shaft of the mine was popping rocks with a different noise to what it has made every other day,’ imagine a computer that could send back weak signals on an hourly basis to the central mainframe of health and safety. Unfortunately, while this may be a good idea, this computer has not yet been invented. It is a shame, because every conscientious and diligent employer that I know—and 99 per cent of employers are, and all of them try to be—would rush to Harvey Norman and buy this software.

These robots are not in the shops; they have not even been invented yet. But they do not need to be invented. What we have every day is the voices, the signals and the knowledge of workers. If we could somehow have a safety system supported by Safe Work Australia that would send the experiences of workers at the workplace and that could be collated by employers who listen—employers who take the time not only to communicate down to their workers but also to listen upwards from their workers—and if we had a system in Australia where bad news in every organisation was as well respected as good news, then I predict that we would not have many more inquiries because we would often prevent the disaster before it occurred.

We already have some of these systems in place. We have delegates and workplace safety officers, many of whom are union trained. In my experience, some of the finest people I have ever met are workplace safety reps who speak up on behalf of the experiences of their fellow workers, often at cost to their own careers and often at cost to them, being seen as stirrers, troublemakers or bad news operators. I can think of Percy Pillai, Gavin Merriman, Sam Beechey and Dave Healy. All of these people have done much to promote health and safety in the industries I used to organise in. The list could go on to our offshore reps and to every sector of the economy. It is these people who are the frontline of health and safety. I am excited by this bill and its passage through the House and hopefully into law.

I think that this bill, together with respect for the voices of and the experience of working Australians, together with intergovernmental agreement, can usher in a new era of cooperation and collaboration between the Commonwealth and the states in this important area. If we can do nothing else than ensuring that more parents and more families can come home to each other at the end of their shift then I believe that we have done a very good thing in supporting this legislation.