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Monday, 9 October 2006
Page: 62

Senator MARSHALL (4:27 PM) —In normal circumstances, the spokesperson for the portfolio area would outline the Labor Party position at the commencement of the debate but, given some pressing commitments, I will make my contribution first, if that is suitable to the Senate. The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991 provides the legal basis for the protection of the health and safety of Commonwealth employees in departments, statutory authorities and government business enterprises.

The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005, which is the bill we are discussing today, reintroduces a number of provisions that were removed from the government’s Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002 by the Senate. This bill, as you, Mr Acting Deputy President Barnett, would have noticed, was in fact introduced into the parliament in about August last year. It has been bouncing around this place as it has had a fairly low order of priority from this government—which is something that I welcome because the introduction of this bill will have a deleterious effect on the occupational health and safety of Commonwealth employees.

The bill is before us today because the legislation that we were going to debate about cross-media ownership, which was scheduled to take up most of the debating period this week, has been withdrawn by this government because they are in complete disarray and, as of today, do not have a common position to bring to this chamber. It is something that we are seeing more and more of, as the arrogance of this government deteriorates to such an extent that they cannot even hold all their own members together on that side of the chamber on a single issue. To fill in time, they have introduced this legislation today which, as I said, has been bouncing around the place as a very low order of priority for 12 months or so.

Approximately 480,000 Australian employees experience a work related injury or illness each year. That translates to approximately 2.8 million Australians suffering from work related long-term health conditions. Each year there are around 140,000 compensated work related injuries, resulting in an absence from work of one or more weeks. In comparison, there are over 13,500 road accidents involving casualties each year in Australia. There are around 3,000 work related deaths in Australia each year, more than the national road toll. Nearly 450 of these work related deaths—an average of nearly 10 per week—are the result of a traumatic incident at work, including work related road deaths, and a further 150 deaths occur while Australian employees travel to and from work, with another 200 people dying each year as a result of someone else’s work activity.

In 1996 National Occupational Health and Safety Commission researchers arrived at a conservative estimate that at least 2,300 people die each year as a result of work related exposure to chemicals. This does not reflect the current extent of death from occupational disease. In the near future, this figure may rise due to the expected increase in asbestos related deaths—a tragedy that for many decades has continued its macabre assault on working Australians, particularly through the Wittenoom disaster and the James Hardie disgrace. Australia has the highest incidence of asbestos related disease in the developed world, and the incidence in Australia has been rising steeply since 1970. It is estimated that the total number of asbestos related deaths will reach at least 40,000, and perhaps as many as 60,000, by 2020.

I give that brief background of the general state of occupational health and safety in this country as a backdrop to the changes that are being made by this bill. The government will argue that these are quite minor changes but, to those people that are actually outside of the safety of offices in parliament, who have to go to work in what may be very dangerous workplaces with dangerous work processes—being exposed to dangerous chemicals—the changes are in fact real and will have an incremental impact on the ability of workers not only to protect themselves but also to engage in strategies to protect the future of their occupational health and safety.

I also need, before I get into the detail of the bill, to talk about the history of how this sort of legislation came into being. The bill that governs occupational health and safety of Commonwealth employees at the moment was actually introduced in 1991—fairly late in respect of the modernisation of occupational health and safety laws. That occurred in the states first, commencing in Victoria in 1985 with what was considered to be the world-leading, cutting edge occupational health and safety of the day. It was introduced by the Cain Labor government in Victoria when they had a very small window of opportunity by having, for the first time ever in the history of Victoria, control of—or the numbers in—the upper house for a very short time back in 1985. History will tell us that, at the last state election in Victoria, for the second time in Victoria’s history, the Labor government managed to win control of the upper house. They have embarked on substantial reforms to give that archaic house true democratic values, where one vote in the upper house in Victoria now will have one equal value—quite an overdue reform. But the reforming nature of the Cain government in introducing the legislation in 1985 led to most other states copying that legislation very quickly and, finally, the Commonwealth doing so in 1991.

It did so by introducing a tripartite structure of cooperation between government, government agencies, experts in occupational health and safety, the employees, through their unions, and of course employers. The whole backbone or cornerstone of this new, modern approach to occupational health and safety was a collaborative approach of self-regulation and cooperation between government employees and employers. If we were going to move away from what was historically a very prescriptive regime—where there were lots of regulations that required people in different circumstances to apply prescriptive legislation that did not necessarily meet their needs or provide the necessary flexibility and optimum occupational health and safety outcome for employees—we needed to go to an approach where we shared the values to make workplaces safer. Of course, if we were going to move to a collaborative, tripartite approach, it was absolutely essential that everyone had an equal part to play and an equal responsibility and equal authority in determining those areas.

That is what modern occupational health and safety legislation did. It enabled and in fact compelled employees and employers to work together to solve occupational health and safety hazards and problems. It gave rights to employees through the election of occupational health and safety representatives to represent them to management and it gave those representatives some rights. Those representatives had rights to issue provisional improvement notices, in the case of Victoria. The terminology is slightly different across most states, but I understand that that is also the wording used in the Commonwealth legislation.

Those notices were able to be issued after discussion and consultation with the employer to put in place a legal obligation on employers to make the improvements specified in the notices. If the employer ultimately did not agree, there was an ability for the employee to appeal, and of course then the government agencies would come in and look at the issues and make a determination and issue their own legally enforceable notices in the form of improvement notices, directions or recommendations.

As someone who was working in a blue-collar industry as an electrician at the time of the introduction of that legislation, I can tell you, Mr Deputy President Barnett, that it was a revolutionary approach where, instead of simply having signs up in the workplace instructing workers to be more careful with their occupational health and safety, the signs said: ‘When you are lifting something heavy, mind your back,’ as though somehow, if you did mind it, that will make what you were lifting much lighter. Signs like ‘Watch out for hazardous objects’ made employers feel that they were doing something for their employees. But of course what it was saying to workers—I thought it was quite disgraceful—was either, ‘You are too stupid to look after your own occupational health and safety,’ or, ‘You care so little about your own occupational health and safety you need some sign up to remind you that your own safety and health in the workplace is important to you.’

Of course the reality at that time and much of the reality today is still that employees have little control over the workplace. They have little control over how it is designed, they have little control over how the process of work is designed and implemented by management, and they have little control over or say about what chemicals are used. They have little control over or say about the materials, the weights being lifted or the purchase of capital equipment to make the workplace safe. Employees do not have that control. One of the great things about the existing legislation is that it forced employers and employees together, with government assistance when necessary, into an arrangement where they had to look at those problems and resolve them together. The employees had rights that they could exert to ensure that injuries were either mitigated or reduced and engineered out of the workplace. That is modern occupational health and safety, and it only works if the employees also have some rights to implement these actions.

What we see, unfortunately, with this particular piece of legislation is a cutting back of those rights—I can only suggest it is due to the ideological hatred that the government have of unions. They seek to completely write unions out of this legislation. The role of unions in implementing occupational health and safety reform in this country has been exemplary. It is beyond reproach. The unions have invested a lot of money, a lot of research and have put an enormous amount of work into the occupational health and safety not only of their members but of workers generally across the country. Of course, many workers owe improvements in occupational health and safety to unions, even though they have not been members of unions; and, of course, that is something that the government would like to forget.

This government will tell us that this legislation still gives workers as individuals some rights. But, again, let me say that, if you do not equip people with the capability of exercising those rights and the knowledge to use those rights in a constructive way, those rights become quite meaningless. If unions are not able to help and assist their members in negotiating new agreements, new provisions, and organising—and using experiences which they have learnt elsewhere, applying them to each individual workplace and setting standards across industries—those rights become a mishmash of useless and uncoordinated activity which does not do anything for the general improvement of occupational health and safety throughout industry. That is to be regretted. It is a most unfortunate thing.

Unions organise and identify occupational health and safety hazards, sometimes investing enormous amounts of money in developing strategies to mitigate or eliminate that risk, and then they are able to apply those across the board. This legislation says: ‘We don’t want collectivism of any form.’ This is the government’s ideology in the extreme. ‘We want every individual to sit down and reinvent the wheel. If there is a hazard identified first, we do not want them having knowledge that that hazard is common across different parts of industry and that there are solutions that you could effectively purchase off the shelf. We want people to sit there in little cocoons—without any knowledge about what is happening in similar industries elsewhere or about similar hazards, and with no resources as individual workers, who most likely will not have the skills to enable them to research and find out what is a proper solution—and try to come up with what is an adequate standard to be applied.

I first entered the workforce as an apprentice electrician. When I first raised the issue of asbestos, because the unions were agitating and advising us that asbestos was dangerous, I was assured by the most senior authority figure with whom I had ever had any dealing in my workplace that the claims were a load of nonsense, that there was nothing wrong with asbestos, that he had used asbestos his whole life and that he was living proof that there was nothing dangerous about it. I sat down and thought of the logic behind that: someone who was not living proof, someone who had died of asbestosis, would not, logically, be there assuring me that asbestos was dangerous because they had already suffered the consequences.

We have always had management at different levels deny that things are actual health and safety problems, deny that there are solutions that can be implemented. Often they assure workers that what the workers say is a problem is not in fact a problem in their view. That has been proven wrong time after time. That is why the removal of the rights of unions and occupational health and safety reps to exercise those powers to readdress the balance of their negotiating ability within the occupational health and safety framework will lead to poorer occupational health and safety outcomes in this country—all because the government have an ideological hatred of unions and simply seek to remove them whenever they can regardless of the circumstances.

The government really should look beyond its own ideological agenda in this area and look at what occupational health and safety is all about. I know some may be sitting in their offices trembling about the next severe paper cut that they may have inflicted upon them, but the figures I read out at the beginning of my contribution reflect the seriousness of occupational health and safety in the workplace. It absolutely dwarfs accidents, injuries and deaths from motor accidents. We often see headlines about the road toll on the weekends. Yet we are averaging 10 deaths a week, week after week after week, in this country, from traumatic injuries at work. We know many of those accidents can be avoided and should be avoided. They are avoided in many instances. In fact, I would say, in most instances, where there is a genuine commitment to occupational health and safety and where both parties work together in a collaborative format we avoid serious accidents and injuries.

We know, as I have also indicated, that for many more decades we are going to suffer an increase—until a peak, probably in about 30 years time—in asbestos related deaths. Those deaths could have been avoided. Every single one of those deaths could have been avoided. If the employers who manufactured asbestos—and it is documented that they knew right back in the twenties, as I understand it, that asbestos was dangerous—had lived up to their obligations, tens of thousands of people would not be dead and tens of thousands of people would not die in the future.

This is a serious issue. This government really should get over its ideology about unions and recognise that occupational health and safety representatives need resources. Those resources are only going to be provided by unions. Employers are not going to do it; if they were going to do it they would be doing it already. The government clearly is not going to do it; they have already wound up the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. The OH&S representatives need that and they need the support of the unions.