Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 16 May 1985
Page: 2048


Senator McKIERNAN(11.42) —I thank the Senate for the opportunity to speak on this most important and historic piece of legislation, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Bill. The Bill represents the fulfilment of yet another election promise for the Hawke Labor Government. I am sure that over time it will be recognised as one of the most important attempts at social reform by this Government. It also represents the fulfilment of a major non-wage component in the prices and incomes accord. I regret that Opposition senators, whilst admitting the appalling degree of risk that working people are subjected to in earning a living, will oppose the Bill. They concede that the fact that over 300 people a year are killed is a disgrace. They publicly deplored the fact that there are 150,000 industrial accidents each year. More importantly for them, they are astounded that a $6 billion price tag is attached to the annual cost of accidents at work in this country.

Yesterday afternoon attention was drawn by my colleague Senator Crowley to a contribution by one Opposition member in the other place in which he admitted publicly just how appalling the occupational health and safety record in this country really is. Mr Downer, the honourable member for Mayo, is reported on page 2039 of the Hansard as follows:

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. While different industrial and economic structures and different statistical methods can make international comparison fairly misleading, such casuistry in no way detracts from the fact that our record is poor.

Despite this record, the Opposition still opposes the Bill. The Opposition did not even move amendments to the Bill. That does not surprise me. It proves that the Opposition has lost any sense of direction in all areas in the field of industrial relations. Members of the Opposition are bankrupt of ideas in this area. We were all aware of this during their time in government. Their attitude now proves that they have learned nothing in the two years they have sat on the Opposition benches, which is where they are destined to stay for many a long year to come.

As was pointed out earlier, this is an historic piece of legislation. It is unique for the spirit of co-operation that has developed between all interested and involved parties-trade unions, employers and governments, in the States and Territories. The Bill represents a significant win for the trade union movement. The union movement has always held safety at work to be of major importance. There are many chapters in the history books of this country recording the struggle. Unions have campaigned at all levels for improved safety standards on the job. They have campaigned at the political level for improved workers compensation for those unlucky enough to be incapacitated whilst working. The campaigns were extended to include a universal health care scheme, an integral component in any scheme to provide a safe and healthy working environment.

The impetus for change in working conditions has always come from organised labour. The trade union movement represents organised labour. Sometimes the changes were won with relative ease but on the majority of occasions concessions were won only after long and bitter struggles. I am proud to record that in my previous occupation I assisted to a little degree in this struggle. I was lucky that in the last 10 years or so, my active period with the trade union movement, occupational health and safety received a higher priority in union thinking and action than perhaps it did before.

I am particularly pleased with the emphasis being placed on occupational health as distinct from safety. It is worth recording that the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union, of which I am a member, was the first union to employ, on a full time basis, union officers to work solely in the area of occupational health and safety. This happened in 1979, the year that the Australian Council of Trade Unions adopted its first occupational health and safety policy. The ACTU occupational, health and safety unit was established in conjunction with the Victorian Trades Hall in the next year, 1980.

Since then that unit has gone from strength to strength in its action and authority. Other unions have also become more active in protecting workers' health and safety. As the consciousness within the union movement increased so too did the pressures for parliamentary reforms. Unfortunately, workers had to wait until they got Labor governments into office before they could record successes in the legislative area.

Workers suffered a setback when the Whitlam Government was unjustly tossed out of office in 1975 but the demands for reforms in occupational health and safety were not so easily stamped out. The Hawke Government, on attaining office, moved quickly to act on its promises made in the 1983 election campaign. Very soon after the election the Interim Occupational Health and Safety Commission was established. An inquiry was held and the report of this body was delivered just over 12 months after the Hawke Government took office. The establishment of the Commission was announced just 19 months after the Hawke Government won the treasury bench. That is a commendable achievement which, hopefully, will culminate today with the passing of this Bill.

The fact that such a Bill is needed to protect the health and safety of people while they are working is without dispute, except by those on the Opposition benches who represent no one except, perhaps, sheep and maybe insurance companies. The statistics should be enough. They have been quoted before but are worth repeating. Over 300 people are killed each year and over 150,000 people are injured each year. Over $6 billion is levied annually to pay for this cost. Senator Jack Evans made a very telling point yesterday when he said that the figure was four times the amount which was cut from Government expenditure in the economic statement announced on Tuesday last. One would expect four times the headlines but, unfortunately, that has not been the case, nor is it likely to be.

I will stay with statistics for a moment. Senator MacGibbon had something to say about the statistics I have just mentioned. I will quote some figures from my State. The figures come from the Western Australian office of the Australian Bureau of Statistics and are for the year 1982-83, the latest available. In that year there was a total of 31,377 accidents in Western Australia. They cost a total of 115,721.2 weeks in lost time and represented an average of 3.7 weeks for each individual accident. The total cost of the claims was $79,387,000 and the average cost of each claim was $2,530.10. The figure of 115,721.2 weeks lost through industrial accidents is the equivalent of over 2,225 years.

A cautionary note must be entered here. When the Western Australia Year Book was checked to do a comparison of previous years, the following explanatory note made very interesting reading. The note referred to the 1981-82 figures and I have not been able to confirm that the 1982-83 figures have changed. The Western Australia Year Book states:

The statistics shown in the table below have been compiled from a collection introduced from 1981-82 and designed to enable industrial accident statistics to be compiled on a comparable basis for each State and Australia. Prior to 1981-82 statistics of industrial accidents were derived from details of claims for workers' compensation reported to have been closed during the year ended 30 June. From 1981-82 onwards, the statistics represent all industrial accidents involving time lost from work of one day or more occurring during the year ended 30 June. For a particular year of record ended 30 June, reports of finalised cases are received progressively from insurers up to the end of September after which time reports are provided for unfinalised cases. The data are not comparable with those published in previous issues of the Year Book.

The figures do not represent all industrial accidents which actually occurred in Western Australia during the year because:

(i) in the case of non-fatal accidents, they include only those which resulted in absence from work of one day or more;

I could give instances of how that affects people and how it can represent a juggling of figures. The Year Book continued:

(ii) only accidents coming within scope of the Workers' Compensation and Assistance Act 1981-1983 of Western Australia are included in the statistics, which therefore exclude industrial accidents resulting in death of, or injury to, self-employed persons and persons employed by the Commonwealth Government;

(iii) the statistics include only accidents occurring at the work site or in the course of the worker's normal duties and therefore do not include 'journey cases' . . . . During the year ended 30 June 1982, 1,763 claims occurred in respect of journey cases;

(iv) industrial disease cases are not included.

The exclusion of self-employed persons is likely to have considerable effect in industries where self-employment is significant (e.g. retail trade, rural industries). Because of the exclusion of Commonwealth Government employees some industries are not covered (e.g. defence forces and Communications) . . . . The accuracy of collection coverage (i.e. whether reports of all accidents involving time lost from work of one day or more are actually submitted to the Workers' Assistance Commission) is very difficult to control because of the diverse administrative system maintained by the insurers. The data should be used with the knowledge that coverage between years may not be consistent and this may effect the validity of statistical trends which become apparent.

It must be accepted that the figures used in this debate are not the true figures and must be very conservative. It is often forgotten when arguments take place about occupational health and safety, and when statistics are tossed around, that the figures used represent people-real people with blood in their veins as well as on the floor, who are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters and, of course, mates. Industrial accidents traumatise not only the victim but the relatives and friends as well. It is just not possible to measure in economic terms the cost of industrial accidents to those surrounding and in close contact with the unfortunate victim. The more severe the accident the greater the trauma and the psychological problems that may develop. A crippling industrial accident affects a person's social and sporting life and often causes major disruption to the whole family circle. No sum of money can measure this and no amount of money will compensate for the psychological damage caused. It is unfortunate that the debate on occupational health and safety invariably degenerates into talk about dollars and cents.

All of the Opposition speakers referred to money and they put the emphasis on the cost to the employer of workers compensation premiums. This again shows how out of touch the Opposition is with the realities of the industrial world. It is unaware that there are quite a few enlightened employers in this country who are actually saving on workers compensation premiums by instituting occupational health and safety programs. One such program was cited by my colleague Senator Crowley when she spoke yesterday about Repco Australia's program on repetitive strain injury at its Tasmanian plant. I had the pleasure of meeting with the manager of that plant, Mr Ivan James, when I launched a videotape in Sydney last month. I commend the initiative of Mr James and of his company and recommend that members of the Opposition make themselves aware of the program developed in that plant. I also commend the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union and the workers in the plant for their initiatives and co-operation. People like Mr James have nothing to fear from this legislation or any other legislation of its type. I also recommend that honourable senators and members of my own Party view the videotape, which is called Stopping RSI At An Early Oppor- tunity. In my short time in this place I have found that there are still some people who do not fully appreciate this particular industrial problem.

I return to the matter of workers compensation. Mr Fergus Stewart McArthur, the honourable member for Corangamite, is obviously obsessed with money. In his incisive contribution to the debate on this Bill in the other place he made the following statement:

I suggest to honourable members that the $6 billion wastage is due more to the lack of incentive to return to work after injury. There are just no incentives in Australia to return to work when workers' compensation payments provide 85 per cent of salary and even 100 per cent when the employer makes up the difference. This contrasts noticeably with the situation in the United States of America, where compensation payments make up 50 per cent of salary, and with the bonus system based on units of output the worker could end up receiving 30 per cent of his normal take home pay. Unless there is an incentive to return to work no amount is expensive, centralised bureaucratic commissions, institutes or committees will succeed in regulating or educating workers to the merits of working rather than receiving workers compensation premiums at home. The $6 billion will continue to grow.

Indeed it will continue to grow if we do not pass this legislation. With thinking like that, Mr McArthur deserves automatic membership of the Queensland National Party. After hearing Senator Sheil's comments yesterday, I would suggest that he and Mr McArthur would sit very comfortably together in the dark ages of slavery and serfdom.

Mr McArthur also has an interest in the visible band-aids of safety. He mentioned on a number of occasions the usage of safety glasses, helmets, safety boots and protective clothing. Certainly there is a place for these sometimes useful protective devices to be worn. However, it must be remembered that safety boots will not save one's life if one falls from a faulty scaffold. Safety glasses will not protect one from exposure to asbestos. Overalls will not save one from chemical poisoning. Earmuffs, or at least the majority that are on the market at the moment in this country, will not protect one from industrial deafness or most other industrial accidents. All too often management representatives have used these band-aids to prove to their shareholders and to themselves that they really care about the welfare of their workers. Most workers have woken up to these tactics. After reading Mr McArthur's speech, I am not so sure that he ever will. I am tempted to also reply to Senator Sheil's comments but my colleague Senator Cook, in a calculated, concise and comprehensive contribution to this debate, dismembered and destroyed whatever points were contained in Senator Sheil's wild and meandering contribution. I will not waste the valuable time of the Senate by speaking further on Senator Sheil's comments.

The shadow Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations attacked the Bill and described it as draconian. Senator MacGibbon, who spoke before me in the debate, also mentioned the word 'draconian'. He used that word when he referred to some of the penalties contained in the Bill. Let me quote what those penalties are and for what offences they apply, and then let us ask the question: How draconian are they? Clause 46 of the Bill concerns the failure of a witness to attend a hearing of the Commission, for which there is a penalty of $1,000 or imprisonment for six months, or both. For refusal to be sworn or to answer questions the penalty is $1,000 or imprisonment for six months, or both. For providing false and misleading information the penalty is $2,000 or imprisonment for one year, or both. For contempt the penalty is $2,000 or imprisonment for one year, or both. Clause 52 (2) of the Bill provides that an employer shall not:

(a) dismiss an employee from his or her employment, or prejudice an employee in his or her employment, because the employee has appeared as a witness, or has given any evidence, at an inquiry; or

(b) dismiss or threaten to dismiss an employee from his or her employment, or prejudice, or threaten to prejudice, an employee in his or her employment, because the employee proposes to appear as a witness or to give evidence at an inquiry.

The fines in this instance are: For an offender who is a natural person, a fine not exceeding $2,000 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year, or both; or if the offender is a body corporate, a fine not exceeding $10,000. Draconian indeed!

Some of the large corporations in this country would quite easily smile at a fine of $10,000. I could mention some names, but I am reluctant to point the finger at any giant steel manufacturer and point the blame at it. One is tempted to compare those offences and penalties with those contained in the Queensland Electricity (Continuity of Supply) Act to find out just exactly how draconian the penalties are. One is also tempted to compare Mr Shack's comments on both pieces of legislation to determine his objectivity and his credentials as an observer of the industrial relations scene, on workers' rights or on the field of occupational health and safety. His biased attack proves his lack of objectivity.

The penalties which I have related to the Senate deal only with the procedures of the Commission and the taking of evidence. They do not refer to the implementation of policing of codes of practices, standards or regulations. This is an area that will, when it is discussed later in the year, cause the honourable senators on the Opposition benches to shriek in horror. They will shriek even if the penalties remain at the ridiculously low levels that they are at the moment.

Let me give the Senate a very brief case history of the situation that exists in my home State of Western Australia. Let the Senate consider whether we ought to include charges such as murder or even manslaughter as well as fines and imprisonment in the penalties. The case history relates to a person called Wesley Sean Millett, who was 16 years of age at the time of his death as a result of an accident that occurred on 23 January 1983. Wesley Millett left school in October 1982 and got a job with a particular electrical contractor through the Commonwealth Employment Service. He was employed on a three-month probationary period, after which he was to apply for an apprenticeship. He was not registered with the department of industry and training. He was not given an eye test to check if he was colour blind. Obviously the ability to distinguish between colours is a key skill when one is working with electricity. No information was given either to the boy or his parents who tried to get such information through the Commonwealth Employment Service about the laws relating to apprenticeships. The boy was not granted a lic- ence by the State Energy Commission.

Wesley and another lad, a third year apprentice, were sent out by themselves by the contractor and often given instructions to do live work on Totalisator Agency Board machines which were still operating. This was done in order not to disrupt the work of the TAB in the vital area of betting on horses and dogs. The accident in which he was killed happened at the Sundowner Hotel when Wesley was installing power points to video machines. He was putting new cables into existing cables when he was electrocuted. After pressure from the boy's parents and the Western Australian State branch of the Electrical Trades Union of Australia the matter finally reached the Magistrates Court of Perth two weeks ago-more than two years after the accident. The contractor was charged with six breaches of the Electricity Act regulations-three breaches for each of the boys. He received the maximum fine of $100 in each case, a total of $600, or $300 in relation to Wesley Millett. He was also ordered to pay costs of $589. The total cost to the contractor was $1,189. The boy's parents, who were awarded $1,100 for funeral costs, had to outlay about $5,000 in legal fees.

The contractor-and this is the disgraceful part-who had and still has a reputation for employing young boys and sending them out unsupervised and with no safety information, also lost his contracting licence for seven years but kept his electrical workers licence. Since then, the contractor's son has taken over the contractor's business and is employing the father. The business is proceeding as usual. A charge of murder or manslaughter would not compensate Mr and Mrs Millett for the loss of their son. To my knowledge they have never demanded that such a charge be laid. If such a charge had indeed been laid it would have proved to the Western Australian and Australian community, and to wage earners in particular, that there is justice in this country.

This is not an isolated case. My colleagues in the union movement could quote many other instances. History is littered with other infamous instances. The mention of a name will be enough to direct attention to those instances. Names such as Baryugil, Alpha chemicals, Port Kembla coke ovens, Wittenoom, et cetera, are all scandals in their own way. The common link between all of these instances is that it is working people who ultimately pay the price. Sometimes it is the ultimate price-their lives. Some people will condone such action. Who will forget that infamous comment by that 'great Australian' Lang Hancock who, when talking about asbestos related deaths of workers, said: 'Some have to pay so the majority can benefit'. We will be talking about Hancock in other debates.

Other senators who have spoken in this debate have explained the detailed clauses of the Bill as well as the composition, role and functions of the Commission, the National Occupational Health and Safety Office and the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety. All of these matters have been explored and elaborated upon. I will not repeat their remarks, other than to comment briefly on one of the functions of the Institute which are set out on page 21 of the Bill. The functions include work relating to research, statistics, testing, training and other matters whether or not related to those activities. I do not seek to put any of these functions in any order of priority or importance but I would highlight the area of training. Fundamental to the effectiveness of any legislation is the necessity for all affected by the Bill to be made aware and have the opportunity to inform themselves of the objectives, scope and powers of the legislation. The people affected in this instance would include employees, supervisors, government inspectors, union representatives, shop stewards and workers. This will be an enormous task. However, with the spirit of concensus which has prevailed so far in the drafting of the legislation and which must continue to prevail, I am sure that we can accommodate that.

In conclusion, I compliment the members of the Interim Commission who worked long and hard to prepare the ground work that culminates with the Bill before the Senate. I pay tribute to all members of that Interim Commission. I mention particularly Dr Judith Watson, the representative of the Western Australian Government on that body. If all the members of the new National Occupational Health and Safety Commission share the commitment to provide workers with a healthy, safe, stress-free work environment that Dr Watson has and works to achieve, the new Commission will have a huge task to live up to.

Finally, I pay tribute to the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis) for the speed with which he acted to fulfil the Australian Labor Party election promises and the crucial non-wage component of the prices and incomes accord. I commend the Bill to the Senate.