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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8132


Mr CHAMPION (7:00 PM) —I rise to support the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008, and I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister for bringing the bill before the House. As someone who has worked in many different types of jobs—grape picking and shopping trolley collection, labouring on farms and cleaning offices—all of my personal experiences have taught me the value of a safe workplace. I think the value is not just in the peace of mind of workers not constantly fearing for their safety but also in productivity in the workplace as a whole. A safe workplace is a productive workplace. This is because a workplace injury hurts everyone. It hurts the worker injured, their family, their workmates and their firm’s productivity. It is incredibly unsettling for a workplace to have an accident in it. That is why a government that is serious about a worker’s safety is a government that is serious about Australia’s economy and its productivity.

This bill is another example of this government taking strong action to keep Australian workers safe and productive. In support of this bill, I wish to discuss the critical importance of improving workplace safety and workers compensation, particularly in the context of intergovernmental cooperation, but I also want to draw on my experience in the retail industry in particular.

More than 300 Australians are killed at work each year, and many more die as a result of work related disease. Each year over 140,000 Australians are seriously injured at work, and the pain and grief caused to friends and family by the loss of a loved one or the injury of a loved one are unimaginable to those who have not experienced it. Similarly, extreme hardship and struggle can follow a serious injury and have far-reaching effects on both the injured worker and their family, on relationships, on job prospects and on income.

There is absolutely no excuse for inaction when it comes to making workplaces safer for employees, and that is why I support the legislation to replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which is a weak body, with the body Safe Work Australia, which has an increased ability to improve safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements across the nation. The role of Safe Work Australia will include developing national policy, monitoring legislation and codes of practice, developing consistent enforcement policies and, most importantly, raising awareness of health and safety at the workplace level. This will effectively progress the improvement of workplace safety and workers compensation. Safe Work Australia will be a joint effort between both state and federal government. It is an example of cooperative federalism and a key reform area for the government.

Currently, workplace safety legislation frequently varies in structure and detail depending on which state a worker may reside in. This legislation and the Safe Work Australia body will help to nationalise workplace safety standards, eliminating unnecessary overlaps, duplications and inconsistencies in the structure of OH&S and workers compensation legislation. I can remember that, when I worked for the state minister for workers compensation in South Australia, the South Australian parliament had to pass a territorial bill to make sure that South Australian workers had coverage in other workers compensation jurisdictions. This is to prevent situations like that. This bill will also remove the difficulties workers, businesses and government currently experience when they are dealing with legislation that varies from state to state. As a result, it will ensure that employees are entitled to the same standards, hopefully, in workplace safety and remuneration as their interstate counterparts.

Rules are generally only upheld when they are understood. To have national OH&S legislation and workers compensation is to simplify it. This will result in increased public awareness and understanding of the law, making the system easier to follow and more effective. In effect, simplification and a national approach will lead to increased compliance.

Adding to the cooperation between state and federal government, the funding for Safe Work Australia will be evenly divided, with the Australian government contributing 50 per cent of the budget and the states and territories providing the other half, with the contribution of each state and territory being proportional to its own population. So this legislation is economically sound, and it demonstrates a clear partnership between governments that will benefit the over 3,000 employing businesses based in my electorate of Wakefield. Recently, the Australian Industry Group welcomed the focus of federal and state governments in working together on a system of harmonised OH&S legislation across Australian states and territories, so it is good for business.

This is part of a way of managing Australia’s economy and productivity and, at the same time, protecting the health and safety of workers. I believe the legislation will be a step forward for the government, business and workers and contribute to the government’s plan for a seamless national economy.

There are many references in this debate to heavy industry, building sites and meatworks and many references to asbestos and James Hardie. That is a good thing, but it does tend to obscure some of the other types of workplaces in the nation which are often quite dangerous but not associated with this debate in the popular mind.

Before I entered the House, I had the honour of working as an occupational health and safety officer for the SDA union in South Australia. The SDA has been committed to ensuring that workers are safe when they leave the workplace, as they were when they arrived. The SDA in South Australia has always had a hands-on commitment to safety, working with employers and employees, providing advice and training and, where necessary, being adamant about retail workers’ rights to a safe workplace.

Recently, the South Australian SDA has developed a workplace leadership program which aims to increase the number of health and safety representatives in the retail industry. I wish to recognise the efforts of Peter Malinauskas, the Secretary of the South Australian branch of the SDA, for this initiative. He has been a great leader on safety and other issues in the retail industry. I would also like to commend Reggie Martin, the trainer at the SDA, and Matt Ellis—key people in driving this project.

The retail and fast food industries are far more dangerous than people may realise. Recent statistics from the WorkCover SA Statistical Review showed that wholesale and retail trade employees made up 15.4 per cent of all workers compensation claims throughout 2006-07 in South Australia. These claims totalled $18.52 million in costs. Many young people work in this industry. It is dominated by people between the ages of 15 and 25, and often those workers are exposed to risks that are beyond their experience and beyond what their parents often expect them to face when they are entering work. There is a fairly benign view, I think, of the retail industry, but there are some very serious risks that workers face.

Two of those risks are manual handling and violence in the workplace. One of the emerging manual handling risks concerns the banning of plastic bags in South Australia. Whilst this is an environmentally desirable change to make, it does create new risks for retail workers, for checkout operators in particular, requiring them to lift green bags which are designed for multiple use, are larger than plastic bags, and have a capacity to be almost double in weight. Considering that retail trade employees in Australia make up 16.7 per cent of back injury claims, this does raise serious concerns for the physical health of the workers who will have to lift these bags almost non-stop during their shifts, in some cases, potentially causing injury over time. In addition, the hygiene of these reusable bags cannot always be guaranteed, and I know of many retail workers who have had some interesting amenity issues when dealing with some customers’ bags. I hope that bodies like Safe Work Australia will help to create a framework to address issues like this in a way that is nationally consistent and acknowledges the legitimate concerns of the union and the employees—the people who have to use these bags.

The other major concern for retail workers, which is often not recognised at all in the workplace safety debate, is that of workplace violence. Violence in the workplace can come in a variety of forms, but two of the most common are client aggression—that is, aggression from customers or patrons—and violence associated with robbery, which can include the threat of violence. Reports of workplace violence are particularly common amongst checkout operators and shop managers, as recorded in the WorkCover Statistical Review of 2006-07 and previous years. I think it is the open and accessible nature of retail workplaces which make those working in them extremely vulnerable to robbery, violence and antisocial behaviour. It is difficult to control that open environment.

I know of many incidents in which retail workers have been placed in situations of considerable danger. In one incident in 2004, a shop assistant in Adelaide, in the city’s CBD, was shot dead at her workplace by her estranged partner. It was a really tragic combination of domestic violence and violence in the workplace. It was an incident that led to a great deal of shock, grief and suffering in the workplace, and also for the family. People do not expect to witness that level of violence at work, but in my time as an official with the union there were many examples of violence and antisocial behaviours in retail workplaces, and of robberies. Sadly, that happens around the nation. So, while those risks are not always acknowledged in the debate about workplace safety, they do have a massive impact on people’s workplaces, on their safety and on their lives at work.

Retail, hospitality and industries like that are part of the new economy. They are a growing part of the economy, with thousands and thousands of employees across the country. I guess it is because of risks like these, which are prevalent in the retail industry, that an active national body like Safe Work Australia is needed to provide nationally consistent approaches to safety issues that affect thousands of workers across the country. In my experience in dealing with employers and employees, safety representatives and other unions, the best way to achieve the highest workplace safety standards is by working in cooperation with employees, employers, businesses, unions and government, rather than by confrontation. I found that, in the main, employers would listen to legitimate issues if workers and companies had a dialogue and had an environment where a dialogue was possible, and that that, rather than the old way of confrontation, was a better way.

I think many of the speeches we have heard—in particular, those of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition—were focused so heavily on confrontation that they really missed the importance of this bill. It is a great pity that they could not have brought a bit more goodwill to this debate. The Safe Work Australia Bill achieves a collaborative effort. It allows parties to make significant improvements to workers compensation and to occupational health and safety standards in workplaces across Australia, and I commend the bill to the House.