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Thursday, 12 February 2009
Page: 1162


Mr CHAMPION (1:37 PM) —I rise to support the Employment and Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2008 and all its contents, but I particularly want to talk about the workers compensation provisions in the bill. Those provisions reflect this government’s priorities, and those are primarily the protection of the most vulnerable in our community and our society. There are few people more vulnerable than families after the death of a loved one at work. The primary victims of workplace death are, of course, the deceased, but it also affects workers’ families, who suffer great emotional turmoil as well as having to deal at the same time with the dramatic loss of income.

Financial compensation at the time of workplace death is important because most workers, no matter what their age, have financial obligations—mortgages, car loans, school fees and a myriad of other costs and living expenses—and most families are reliant on either a single income or a dual income to pay those costs. So the death of a worker can have a devastating economic impact on a family, on top of the emotional cost that such a death brings.

This bill increases the lump sum payments for victims’ dependants in the event of a workplace death under the Australian government’s Comcare scheme from $225,000 to $400,000, and it also increases the weekly benefits for dependent children from $75.10 to $110 a week. This brings the Commonwealth scheme into line with comparable state schemes. In particular, it brings the scheme into line with the WorkCover scheme in South Australia, which in 2008 brought its own death benefits into line with other state jurisdictions. The lump sum payable under section 45A of the WorkCover scheme in South Australia is about $420,500, so it is a touch more generous than the proposed bill but it is in the same ballpark. Having a parallel sort of figure is very important because more and more national private sector employers are seeking to leave state workers compensation schemes and enter Comcare, primarily because of the efficiencies—they do not have to comply with seven different state jurisdictions—but also because there is a difference in benefits in some instances. So this relatively minor amendment to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act will have a massive impact on the lives of those who are compensated, and it acknowledges something of the lost earnings and financial dislocation that a death at work visits on a family.

It is important to remember, particularly given the member for O’Connor’s contributions, the reason these provisions exist in the first place, and it is an opportunity to reflect on the hidden tragedy of workplace death and injury. It has been estimated that the toll from workplace deaths exceeds the national road toll. It is very difficult to quantify the exact number of people who die nationally as a result of work related causes, because at the moment there is no single national data collection system for such statistics, but those statistics that are compiled are pretty sobering. The Australian Safety and Compensation Council conclude that, in 2005-06, 434 people died either at work or commuting to work. That is identified deaths, and as I said the statistics are somewhat uncertain, so the real toll is likely to be higher.

It is really as a result of these fatalities that governments, under pressure from unions, victims’ families and the community, have steadily improved their health and safety laws and their fines and that companies have been obliged to adopt safer practices and better training regimes. I have seen that firsthand in the retail industry; I was a safety officer for the SDA—the shop assistants union—in South Australia, and I worked with a great many companies, many of whom did the right thing. Many of them, when you brought a risk to their attention, did their very best to rectify it, and many of them put in place risk identification schemes to prevent workplace injury or death. But it is still far too often in the news. We know that so many deaths could be avoided if there were adequate training or more stringent safety practices and that, sadly, there are many examples in South Australia of companies who were prosecuted for not doing that. I will give the House a few examples

In 2005 a carpenter was fatally injured in South Australia when he was caught in a travelator which was being tested at a suburban shopping centre. He was engaged in work on the travelator. Unfortunately someone turned it on and he fell into the machine’s moving parts. The companies involved in that case were found to have breached the South Australian Occupational Health, Safety and Welfare Act and were fined a total of $180,000. The Executive Director of SafeWork South Australia, Michele Patterson, said following the prosecution that the event was a ‘tragic example of the consequences of poor safety planning and poor communication’. If there had been a bit more thinking, that carpenter might not have died.

In the same year a 34-year-old father of three was electrocuted and died while working on an advertising sign. SafeWork SA launched a prosecution and the industrial magistrate Stephen Lieschke found that:

Relying on the experience and competence of employees to work out safety for themselves in unusual but not unforeseen circumstances is not a sufficient safeguard.

Basically it was, again, a death that may have been prevented if there had been training, if the risks had been identified and if there had been some forethought about what could happen. In 2006 a South Australian bus company was successfully prosecuted when a driver was crushed under a coach as he changed a flat tyre. Again, the prosecution found clear failures both in the training of the victim and in the work environment itself. I note that Comcare has recently initiated proceedings in the Federal Court over the death of a construction worker in Queensland. Those deaths indicate that while the toll is very high and while there might be circumstances where people are injured or die at work, we can prevent many of them.

It is young workers who are particularly vulnerable to risks at work. In 2003 there was the tragic case of Joel Exner, a 16-year-old construction worker who was killed when he fell 12 metres through the roof of a storage shed. He was not wearing safety gear; he was not given safety gear. His was a death that was preventable. That case attracted a lot of attention in New South Wales, and justifiably so. In 1996 a 13-year-old shopping trolley collector died when an octopus strap that was used to connect the trolleys he was pushing into a shopping centre came off and hit him in the throat. He died because his larynx collapsed. Young workers, we know, are particularly vulnerable at work. They are inexperienced and they rely on their workmates and their employers to show them about work safety. We know that if they are not looked after then, sadly, deaths occur.

Those are just some examples of recent workplace fatalities. Behind every one of them is a grieving family, grieving friends and grieving workmates. As I said before, they are preventable. Most deaths at work are preventable and are often the result of poor planning, lack of training, lack of attention to the risks involved with work and a lack of attention to near misses at work. Often there is a near miss at work and people say, ‘Aren’t I lucky,’ but they do not take action to mitigate that risk.

I spoke before about some of the statistics put out by the Australian Safety and Compensation Council and how it is very hard to quantify the number of people who die every year in work related deaths. That is because one of the biggest killers of workers, asbestos, is often not included in these figures. Asbestos makes the news and is a horrendous product if not handled properly and carefully. It causes asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. It is estimated that around 600 people every year are diagnosed with an asbestos related disease. Most of these people are innocent victims. At the opening of the Bernie Banton Centre in January, the Prime Minister said:

These were just working Australians, supporting their families, supporting themselves. Doing no harm to anybody but great harm was done to them. Working Australians whose lives and whose families’ lives were changed forever because of a few tiny fibres breathed in some 20 or 30 years ago.

It was interesting to hear the member for O’Connor talk about why people should be compensated when they are in the last years of their life when perhaps they have no dependents. That ignores the fact that the dangers of asbestos were well known to James Hardie in particular and to other companies a long time before they took any action to stop its use or safely remove it. Many of these workers do have dependants—they have wives; they have children; they have grandchildren. Often there are massive medical expenses and great economic and emotional dislocation when people contract mesothelioma or asbestosis.

I want to pay particular tribute to a constituent of mine, Mr Terry Miller of Salisbury, and the Asbestos Victims Association which Terry helped form. Terry was really the driving force behind that organisation. The Asbestos Victims Association does such good work for the victims of this killer in my community and right across South Australia to assist families and those who contract this terrible disease. The association offers them support and advocacy—indeed, they are great advocates to those of us in positions of power to make sure that the victims of this disease do get some sort of justice. It is a terrific organisation. It does not get much help from government; it relies on its membership subscriptions and on volunteers to get the job done.

In conclusion, workplace death affects more than just the victim. It takes an enormous toll on families. It can traumatise communities. They need our help and our practical and emotional support. There is a very good guideline on the SafeWork SA website about dealing with workplace death. I notice that that is not on the Comcare website. It is something that I hope appears there at some point. Families do need our practical and emotional support. They also, of course, need our financial support. The passage of this bill will mean that the families of workers who pass away under the Comcare scheme will have the burden of financial stress reduced and hopefully it will make a terrible event a little easier on them. I commend the bill to the House.