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Wednesday, 15 May 1985
Page: 2017

Senator CROWLEY(5.49) —Once again, Senator Messner has come into this place with a defence which says no more than that things are going to cost a lot. He proceeded to say that what we need is co-operation between the States and the Federal Government, that this Commission will not do this, but that, in the end, that is the Opposition's position and it wants that co-operation. I do not find any of his arguments persuasive-in fact, I think they are puerile-but I will address them in more detail and point out the discrepancies between what he has advanced and what some of his colleagues in the House of Representatives have advanced in contradiction of his remarks.

We are addressing the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Bill 1985. It is important to note-this is particularly important in light of some of Senator Messner's objections-that this Bill is the first of three which it is proposed to be introduced by the Government as part of a concerted national effort to come to grips with the problem of occupational health and safety. The Government will, in the Budget session, hopefully, introduce legislation in respect of the Australian Capital Territory or areas in which the Commonwealth has jurisdiction. Further, it will legislate to establish a mandatory notification and assessment scheme for industrial chemicals. Neither of those areas is covered by this legislation. In fact the use of the term 'draconian' in relation to this legislation is quite remiss and wide of the mark. It also indicates that Senator Messner has failed to understand the content of this legislation. The term 'draconian' may apply to legislation requiring specific and particular actions. It is not draconian for legislation to suggest reviews, in other words, to point out what sorts of areas people might look at. I hardly think that a request, a recommendation or legislation in relation to the allowing of reviews is worthy of the title 'draconian'.

Senator Messner pointed out the aims and objectives of this legislation. I think it does no harm to spell them out again. Principally, the legislation is to establish the Commission with objects of developing community awareness about occupational health and safety. It is quite clear that our community awareness is still very low on this issue. While there are increasing examples of understanding, particularly in the work force by both management and workers and within the union movement, it is quite clear to any of us who talk about it in the community that the wider community awareness about occupational health and safety still falls far short of what would be satisfactory.

One of the objectives of this legislation is to extend the understanding and awareness of occupational health and safety in the community. It will provide a forum for consultation among the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments and peak councils of employees and employers. That is precisely what Senator Messner suggested the Opposition, particularly the Liberal Party, supported but then he proceeded to point out that this legislation would not make such provision. The legislation provides a national focus for occupational health and safety activities. That point is also very important. As Senator Messner said, there are many projects, pieces of legislation and activities in certain industries and areas of employment in this country, but they are not coherent. They are not necessarily in line with one another and they do not necessarily provide an opportunity for people in other States to be informed of what is already being achieved or what needs to be done. The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission will provide that focus. Its very existence will also, I think, increase and contribute to its first requirement or objective-that is, increasing community awareness.

It is also important to make clear that the establishment of this Commission fulfils Australian Labor Party policy and a commitment by the Government to do so. In fact, very soon after the Government took office in 1983 it established the Interim National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. That Commission reported, and the legislation proposing the establishment of the Commission is in consequence of the Government accepting the Interim Commission's report. It is important to note that the establishment of the Occupational Health and Safety Commission is in line and in sympathy with and, in fact, included in, the accord. I will quote the statement which actually addresses this point. The National Economic Summit Conference, in its final communique, stated:

The Summit believes that the nation must give occupational health and safety a greater priority and endorses the need for concerted government, employer and union action to improve the quality of the working environment in Australia.

So we not only have a government commitment to establish the Occupational Health and Safety Commission, but also a commitment in the accord to do so. There is also a commitment to the importance that the Government places on the establishment of the Commission and the work that it will do.

We have heard from Senator Messner that one of the reasons that the Opposition will oppose this Bill is cost. I draw his attention, and the attention of all honourable senators, to the cost that the Government considered when it went ahead with establishing this Commission. There is the cost to people in the work force, to individuals. Nobody can put a price on human life. But I think at certain stages we must acknowledge that many people have died in the work place and during their work. The figures currently range from 300 to 400 deaths in Australia per year. Those figures are grossly inadequate because the figures I have seen indicate a number approaching 300 deaths in New South Wales alone. The Commonwealth Public Service also alludes to over 180 deaths covered by its Commonwealth compensation payments. I am trying to suggest that we have very inadequate data. But we gather that well over 300 people die as a result of work related injuries or accidents in the course of one year. Those figures are, I think, appalling. The number of accidents is estimated at 100,000. Again, I would have thought that that was a very conservative estimate and fraught with the same inaccuracies as the estimate of the number of deaths.

For those people who suffer accident and injury there is human misery, pain and suffering. There is the loss of their labour-the very thing with which they can bargain. There is the loss of prestige and, in particular, there is the loss of their contribution of income to family. There is very often a consequential social cost of family damage as a result of a person being out of employment either for long periods or permanently. Of course, there is the loss of potential earning. That is an assessment of the cost to an individual. The cost to the community, again, is prohibitive. Mr Macphee, when he was the responsible Minister during the later years of the Fraser Government, I think, in about the middle of 1982, was reported as saying that the estimated cost of accident and injury in the work force in this country in one year amounted to $6.5 billion. I have no idea how that figure was arrived at. I certainly have heard it cited on a number of occasions over the years since that time. There has been no advance on or withdrawing from the figure of $6.5 billion. I would like to be clearer about how such a figure was arrived at. But figures have been reported by the Opposition when in government-and sometimes when in opposition-and certainly by this Government that the cost to the community of accident and injury in the work place is not millions of dollars but billions of dollars. How can one compare the cost of a mechanism that might reduce that cost to the community-not, I would imagine, in one year, but over time-with the cost of establishing an occupational health and safety commission? I think that that is the way in which the argument should be advanced-not in terms of the cost of establishing a quango, to quote Senator Messner, but the cost of reducing the appalling dollar cost and human misery cost for accidents and injuries in our country. It is very important that we understand the cost equation in those terms, not in the simplistic way in which Senator Messner argued.

It is also interesting to look at the economic cost in terms of productivity lost. In the dark days at the end of the Fraser Government's term of office, when industrial disputes were very much higher than they are now, it was estimated that days lost due to industrial accident were four times the number of days lost in industrial disputes. I have never seen extensive reportage in the media about the cost to productivity, employment, management, the Government or the country, of accident and injury, even though that cost is actually four times the cost of industrial disputes. I have read many articles which talk about the cost of industrial disputes. One has only to read what is happening in Queensland at the moment to know that the cost of industrial disputes is widely reported. The figure, which is four times higher, for the loss of productivity from accident and injury is not reported in the same way. I think it is a very telling story.

The Occupational Health and Safety Commission as described in this legislation has a number of functions. These are spelt out in quite some detail. The Commission is asked to formulate policies and strategies. It is also asked to consider, and make recommendations in relation to, actions by and co-operation between governments, employers and persons engaged in occupational activities and their organisations. Further, it is asked to review and make recommendations relating to proposals for laws and awards. I will just simply say again that for Senator Messner to suggest that the Commission, in being asked to review such legislation and awards, is extending well beyond its legal limits or that this Bill is a piece of draconian legislation, shows that he fails to understand the meaning of the word 'review'.

The Commission has also been charged with the task of declaring national standards and codes of practice. Again, I think it is quite clear, when we look at the area of occupational health and safety in this country, that we are sadly lacking in national standards and codes of practice that apply to the whole country. Senator Messner alluded to the importance of States rights. The difference of standards between States leads to quite significant problems when codes requiring, for example, warnings on the outside of chemicals are not the same from State to State. So, in one State people may have to be warned of the content of a product and in another State that is not necessary. I think national standards will be of benefit to the whole country and all Australians. Again, I do not believe that asking the Commission to address itself to formulating national standards is draconian or too invasive of the legislation that applies more, I suppose, to States rights.

The Commission has also been asked to evaluate itself. I am pleased to see that a request for peer review has been spelt out in the task of the Commission. The Commission has the task of telling us what it is doing, how it is going about it and how well it is doing it. I admit that under a system of peer review the Commission will not be encouraged to tell us how badly it is doing. However, I think the honest men and the one woman on the Commission will make a good fist of that task.

In addition, the Commission is charged with collecting and disseminating information. I think the point that Senator Messner alluded to in respect of the many disparate things happening around the country highlights the need for the collation and dissemination of information. At the moment it is clear that the bits of information about what is happening from State to State and business to business are not widely understood and, in fact, the information is not sufficiently shared. One of the main aims of the Commission is to deal with the very specific listed functions.

Another important function of the Commission will be to act as a means of international liaison and allow Australia very directly to co-operate and collaborate with such organisations as the International Labour Organisation, the World Health Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In fact, the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis) spelt out in some detail in his second reading speech some of the ILO conventions with which this country would like formally to comply and ratify. We will be able to do that easily once the Commission is established.

The Commission is charged with establishing research and testing of a whole variety of matters. It can actually carry out research with organisations or it can allow for research to be carried out by individuals. It will have the task of administering a national occupational health and safety research fund which is proposed under clause 58 of this legislation. Of course, it can report to the Minister at any time on matters which come to its attention or which it feels ought to be raised. It can initiate its own ideas.

An extensive number of occupations are covered by the legislation. I am rather pleased to discover that people who are in unpaid work are also understood to be covered by the definitions in this Bill. 'Occupation' means a full or part time occupation and covers occupations undertaken by people who are traditionally known as employees but also covers an independent contractor, a statutory appointee, a person working in a government service such as a defence force or a police force, a member of parliament, a self-employed person, a worker in a family business or a director. Further, the definition covers those who are not in paid employment-for example, voluntary workers, students and prisoners. I find a nice contradiction here in that I presume under this definition an unpaid housewife at home would not be covered by the definition of 'occupation', but if the housewife employed a paid housekeeper, that person would be covered. So I suppose that under the notion of 'paid housekeeper' the occupational health hazards of living at home can be brought, by whatever means, to the attention of the Commission. However, I think we have to continue to make sure that occupational health and safety is addressed to every member of the community.

I am delighted to discover that members of parliament are judged to be people in occupation. Sometimes we hear cynical suggestions that politicians are overpaid and do not work. However, by definition now under the National Health and Safety Commission Bill they are presumed to be in paid work and are covered by the legislation.

I have alluded before to the fact that we are charged with the important task of increasing community awareness of occupational health and safety. In particular, I think we have to move to encourage politicians to understand what occupational health and safety is about. I am advised that something like 2,000 people work in and around this Parliament House. This number includes politicians, their personal staff, the staff who maintain this Parliament, drivers, cooks, caretakers, cleaners and other support staff. I think one could probably not go past Parliament House and the people who work here as an example of poor occupational health and safety standards. I would be pleased if the Commission at some stage took a brief to look at the occupational health and safety of people working in Parliament House. I have already discovered the specific problems experienced by people who suffer from paint fumes when parts of Parliament House are being painted. I have drawn this problem to the attention of the Speaker on a number of occasions. This is one of the fairly predictable work hazards. Painting Parliament House is probably not too different from painting other buildings. I think probably Parliament House is different from other work places in terms of the hours and the stress experienced by people who work here. Again, I think Parliament House would make a very nice occupational health and safety study.

I think the point Senator Messner made about the increased cost to industry of establishing the Commission is given the lie by any number of examples, one of which I have already alluded to in the Senate but which I will refer to again. I draw the attention of the Senate to a report in the Age of 23 April 1985 concerning Repco Australia's Launceston plant manager, Mr James. The article stated:

. . . his company's RSI rehabilitation and prevention program had reduced working hours lost due to RSI from 3,960 in 1982 to nil so far in 1985. The company's workers compensation payments had been halved . . .

That is one very special example or illustration which I think quite clearly indicates the way the establishment of an occupational health and safety commission and the consequent increased awareness of different practices relating to health and safety in industry will in fact lead to savings-savings in hard dollars but also savings in terms of injury and the human loss to which I referred earlier.

Another important point that is illustrated beautifully in this article is the necessity for management and union co-operation. Neither one by itself can achieve what is possible without co-operation. The article continued:

Mr James said that the RSI could not be prevented without the co-operation of management and unions in accepting the conditions as genuine and developing strategies designed for specific workplaces.

In fact, Repco's RSI program is the subject of a video called 'Stopping RSI' released by the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union. One has in that example an excellent model of what the Occupational Health and Safety Commission would like to see illustrated in many more work places and in many more conditions.

There is often reference-and I have heard mention of it in this debate-to draconian legislation in Victoria. If workers' rights are allowed to go too far, if they recognise a potential hazard in terms of safety, it is said that these wretched workers will turn off industry across the face of Australia. Whenever I speak to union representatives or hear people in the union movement speaking about occupational health and safety, they make it clear that they are not expecting a risk-free world. They are talking about responsible management in respect of recognised safety hazards in the work place. It is precisely because somebody is close to machines or using tools that he or she is best placed to know what the risks and safety hazards are, and to know when a guard is missing or something out of kilter. I would have thought it quite reasonable to expect workers to be able to initiate action and report on what they recognise as unsafe.

The comments about Victoria are also interesting because, although I have not had the time to find the quotation, I am clear that the business organisations in Victoria were working very hard prior to the election to support the passage of the occupational health and safety legislation through the upper House in Victoria. If that was the attitude of industry and business in Victoria, I think that it also gives the lie to the claims of Senator Messner. He also suggested that this country had a very good record in this sphere. I would like to quote his colleague Mr Downer, newly come to Parliament and probably still blatantly honest. Mr Downer, as reported in the House of Representatives Hansard of Thursday, 9 May 1985, at page 2039, said:

Honourable members are aware that Australia's record in the field of occupational health and safety is, in global terms, one of the worst. In early 1984 the National Safety Council claimed that Australia had the third highest work place accident record in the world.

He continued later in his remarks:

In my state of South Australia alone, the annual cost of work-related accidents is around $500m. These figures are at least part of the explanation as to why workers compensation premiums cost Australian industry $1.7 billion in 1982-83.

Mr Downer is clear that we are not too good and that we could up our game a whole lot. The model that we are proposing is not freakish, way out or leading the field. In fact, it is very much in sympathy with the models that are in place in the United Kingdom, in Canada, to some extent in the United States of America and places in Europe. The Opposition raised the spectre of what must be described as its own best fantasies by suggesting, to quote Mr Shack, as reported on page 2028 of the same Hansard of 9 May:

. . . workers in Australia are not chewed up and spat out, drained and damaged in the process of production. Employees in Australia enjoy working conditions on a par with, if not superior to, those of any other country in the world.

One wishes that Mr Downer had listened to Mr Shack, or that at least they had got together in the corridors of power and agreed on their lines. It is interesting that Mr Shack said that the record is not too bad and Mr Downer said that it is the third worst. It is also interesting to say to Mr Shack that because we are not the worst in the world does not mean that we cannot improve or that we should not take steps to improve. In fact Australia should be unashamed about trying to be the model of occupational health and safety in the world. I do not think it is set fair to do that, but it is ridiculous to say that because we do not 'chew up and spit out' our workers we can therefore rest on our laurels. It is clear from the cost figures, the numbers of deaths and accidents in this country, and even by quoting Mr Downer, that we have lots of room for improvement in the matter of occupational health and safety. I find Mr Shack's argument quite spurious, and in fact silly. The proposals in this legislation are not draconian and I think that word is quite ill placed by Senator Messner. In fact, it is a responsible and reputable model, and I hope that the establishment in Australia of this Commission will lead to considerable gains and achievements for workers and management, and also to a dramatic reduction in the costs I quoted earlier.

I wish to express my concern that the presence of the Department of Health in the Occupational Health and Safety Commission be significant and maintained. I note that one of the places on the Commission is reserved for a representative from the Department of Health, and I am delighted that a person of senior level will be there. Although the Commission has been established and one hopes that there will never be any need for health care in the work place again, I do not presume that that state will be reached too rapidly. It is important that the Commission focus its main aim on the prevention of accident and injury, but that it also provide adequate treatment and management for those workers who suffer an accident or injury. The importance of the place of the medical and paramedical professional people in providing that necessary and appropriate care cannot be understated. Not only do we need tripartite consultation between government, employer and employee, but we also need consultation between workers and health care providers to optimise the management of any accident or injury when it occurs to a worker.

I saw in a rubber mill in South Australia a man whose arm had been degloved, which is an expression for the removal of the skin from the elbow to the fingertips, in effect hanging from the fingertips. This happened when the man's arm was caught in the mill. The immediate response of the people in caring for that worker was to support him in his state of shock and provide for him to be admitted to hospital, where it was expected that a general surgeon would amputate his arm. A colleague and I were very concerned about that and we-principally my colleague-were able to arrange that this man be attended by a plastic surgeon and the worker's arm was saved. It is important to know that in South Australia the plastic surgeons have made it quite clear that any worker who suffers an injury that could benefit from urgent treatment by plastic surgeons would receive priority treatment on the operation list of the plastic surgeons on duty that day. That is an interesting and useful illustration of the importance of health providers and people concerned in the work place for occupational health and safety co-operating to gain the maximum input and benefit for the worker. That is an important part of occupational health and safety. The other important part, which I hope will be spelled out by some of my colleagues, is the importance of providing the necessary information to people in the work place so that they know their rights and the measures they need to take in order to co-operate for the optimal effect for all workers. I commend this piece of legislation.