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Address to the Construction Industry Safety Workshop, Sydney



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Speaking Notes for the

Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations Bob McMullan

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at the

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Construction Industry Safety Workshop

Sydney, 26 March 1998

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• An incoming Federal Labor Government will give occupational

health and safety issues a new and higher priority. The first step

will be to recognise the complexity and long-term nature of the task

of reducing unacceptably high levels of death, injuring and illness

generated in Australian workplaces. Then we must commence a 20

year campaign to halve that level of death and disease as has

successfully been done with the road toll. There are many

appropriate analogies between the long-term campaign which has

seen the road toll fall by more than 50 per cent over 30 years and

' the program which we should start in the area of occupational

health and safety.

• A safe and healthy workplace is a fundamental right of all

Australian working men and women. However, many Australians

are being denied this right. The statistics available are far from

perfect but those that are available suggest that up to 2,900

Australians die each year as a result of workplace accidents and

occupational diseases and a further 650,000 suffer work-related

injury or disease. What these figures suggest is that 50 per cent

more people die as a result of workplace accident injury or disease

than die on the roads.

This death and injury toll inflicts enormous personal and social

costs on those affected. According to the Industry Commission it

also drains the national economy of at least $20 billion per year.

It is imperative that a concerted effort be made to reduce this

unacceptably high workplace death and injury toll.

I recognise that the primary responsibility for occupational health

and safety rests with the States and Territories. I don't wish to

change that responsibility, however, as with the road toll, it is

important that a national approach is adopted to significantly reduce

the incidence and severity of work-related industry and disease. To

ensure the success of this national approach the Federal

Government must show leadership.

The comparison with the road safety campaign is very important

and instructive. The Federal Office of Road Safety has a priority

role in research, standards and policy setting, public education and

specific attention on dangerous goods regulation. Most

importantly, it continues to receive Commonwealth support.

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• The Federal Office of Road Safety's appropriation and staffing both

increased slightly in 1996/97. This is in stark contrast to the

circumstances of the National Occupational Health and Safety

Commission. From 1996/97, its appropriation was cut from $19.8

million to $14.3 million, which is a cut of more than 20 per cent and

its staff was cut from 222 to 123, which is a cut of some 45 per

cent.

• If this had occurred in the area of road safety, it would have been

considered a scandal. It is important that we focus attention on this

problem and don't allow these sorts of cuts to happen again.

• We need to emphasise the importance of improvements in

occupational health and safety as a central aim of national

microeconomic reform.

• To address this decline in resources a Federal Labor Government

will have the objective of increasing the Commonwealth

contribution to research, standard setting, information and

inspection at the Commonwealth level or through cooperation with

the State, Territory and Local Governments and with industries and

enterprises.

It won't be easy to find the funds in the tight budgetary

circumstances that an incoming Labor Government will face. We

will begin by focussing on the transfer of enforcement resources

from the Office of the Employment Advocate to this high priority

area of occupational health and safety.

In addition, we will focus on tripartite forums at enterprise and

industry level to focus on issues of occupational health and safety.

I recently co-convened, with the New South Wales Minister for

Industrial Relations, Jeff Shaw, a meeting with all Labor State

Shadow Ministers dealing with the issue of industrial relations and

workplace safety. At that meeting on 26 February this year, we

formally committed ourselves at the Federal and State level to a

coordinated national approach aimed at reducing the number of

workplace deaths and injuries. ‘

Jeff Shaw and Professor Ron McCallum briefed us on measures the

New South Wales Government, has adopted to address this crucial

issue. They emphasised that the national approach which has been

taken on road safety has been successful because it has been tackled

as an ongoing cooperative project. The same approach needs to be

taken to workplace safety.

The New South Wales' occupational health and safety system

provides a useful model for reforms in other States and Federally.

Jeff Shaw's model has some positive features including its emphasis

on enforcement and particularly its sensible right of entry procedure

for workers representatives.

The New South Wales proposal to revamp penalties for breaches of

safety laws, including new penalties against employers such as

community service orders, the placement of bonds and compulsory

safety audits, will also be considered by the other States.

I welcome the fact that the Labor government in New South Wales,

and some conservative States have provided resources for high

profile media campaigns to raise awareness of occupational health

and safety among employers and the broader community. A

Federal Labor Government would expect every State to join in this

area of activity and to commit themselves to vigorous occupational

health and safety enforcement activity.

In accordance with established International Best Practice, a Federal

Labor Government will continue to promote the involvement of

elected health and safety representatives in the occupational health

and safety decision making process.

It is very important that the focus on our health and safety doesn't

merely lead to a process of cost shifting by State and Territories

workers compensation schemes to injured workers or the

Commonwealth. This is simply about addressing the question of

who pays the price rather than reducing the overall cost to the

individuals, to their families and to the community as a whole.

I referred initially to the adequacy of statistics about health and

safety at work. It is fundamental that we overcome this

shortcoming. The Commonwealth can't do it alone but we will

initiate enhanced consultation with the State and Territory

Governments to develop and maintain a uniform national system of

occupational health and safety statistics which detail the incidence

of death, injury and disease from exposure to hazards in the

workplace.

The construction industry is clearly a priority area for this sort of

activity because of the high level of risk and accident in the industry

notwithstanding the active campaigns at industry level to focus

attention on this issue.

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• Statistics suggest that the four industries most affected are mining,

transport, agriculture and construction.

As I have said, if we are to successfully reduce the level of death,

injury and disease in the workplace in these particular industries, a

long term plan must be put in place.

• As I mentioned earlier, this will be a difficult task as the current

Federal Government has slashed the National Occupational Health

and Safety Commissions funding since 1996/97 from $19.8 million

to $14.3 million.

• It is very difficult to rebuild an organisation once it has been

slashed. There is no easy way to provide all the resources and

restart all the work that was underway up to the 1996 cuts. ~

• To use a favourite phrase of Kim Beazley "It is true that Rome

wasn't built in a day, but Nero burnt it down in 2 days". •

• The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission is a

major and important institution dealing with an area of profound

national interest which had been pain-stakingly built up over a

decade and has been slashed mercilessly over the last 2 years.

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• We will start the process of rebuilding straight away, but it won't be

easy. *

• The last issue I want to focus on is the issue of enforcement.

• There seems to be a view that we shouldn't be engaged in

enforcement and prosecution in the area of health and safety, we

should rather focus on issues of education, self-regulation and

research. I have never heard anybody suggest that we should

abandon enforcement in the area of the road toll simply because we

want to give priority to education promotion and research.

• Of course we should have education, promotion, standards setting

and research in both areas but it is important that we are rigorous in

our enforcement of the standards and strong in our prosecutions of

those who put workers lives needlessly in danger. This will be our

first priority in turning our attention to addressing this issue in

government. We look forward to cooperating with the State Labor

Government here in New South Wales and those we hope to see

elected in other States to enable the coordinated national approach

which this issue needs to begin over the next 12 months. It will be

just the starting point for a campaign we all recognise will take a

very long time.

END