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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8047

Mr NEUMANN (1:05 PM) —My city of Ipswich prospered under the woollen mills, meatworks, railway workshops and coalmines. But I recall, as a young boy, the events of 31 July 1972 at 2.47 am. I remember waking up to a loud bang and thinking, ‘I wonder why my house is rocking.’ Many people who lived in Ipswich originally mistook the explosion that night at Box Flat mine for an earthquake. The previous evening, a fire that started in the mine had grown to the stage where it could not be extinguished. A final team of 14 men entered the mine via number 7 tunnel to investigate and explore options to contain the fire, while three more men were stationed and working at the entrance to number 5 conveyor belt tunnel. A short time later a huge explosion was to claim the lives of all 17 men, while others were injured. Rescue and recovery efforts were proposed but not undertaken due to the danger of further explosions and the reality that no-one could possibly have survived underground. The mine was then sealed, entombing those who remained. There were injuries sustained by others in the explosion.

The Box Flat tragedy left an indelible mark on the city of Ipswich. A permanent memorial has been erected on Swanbank Road near the original Box Flat mine shaft to honour the men and to ensure the disaster will never be forgotten. The strong mining community of Ipswich was even stronger in 1972. Many people were related to the lost miners and knew them as comrades, friends or just acquaintances. They all felt the tragedy. The city of Ipswich was saddened and the tragedy left a legacy that the people of Ipswich will never forget.

I had the privilege of growing up opposite Digger Murphy, who was the head of the coalminers federation in Queensland, and reading, on many occasions, Common Cause, which was the coalminers federation’s newsletter. Just around the corner from me, former Ipswich Mayor Des Freeman lived with his wife, Colleen. Des was an organiser with what is now known as the CFMEU. He told me many stories, as did Digger, of the troubles and travails of the coalminers federation and of the occupational health and safety issues which they confronted every day.

I am pleased to speak in relation to the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 because it affects the many men and women who work in difficult vocations in my community. Last Saturday I met with some meatworkers in my electorate office who told me about the difficulties in the meat industry, the hard yakka that they undertake and the challenges to occupational health and safety that they face every day.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, released the comparative performance monitoring report on Australia’s occupational health and safety and workers compensation outcomes in 2006-07. It was subsequently endorsed in Sydney by the state and territory workplace relations ministers. The key findings of that report are startling. In 2006-07 there were 236 fatalities recorded in Australia, of which 177 were from injuries and musculoskeletal disorders and 57 were from other diseases. Body stressing continues to be the mechanism of injury and disease that accounts for the greatest proportion of claims: 42 per cent. The manufacturing industry recorded the highest incidence of claims per 1,000 employees—27.5; followed by transport and storage—25.9; agriculture, forestry and fishery—25.3; and construction—22.1. Over three-quarters of injured workers successfully return to work within eight to 10 months of sustaining their injury.

The truth is that we need to harmonise Australia’s OHS laws. That was an election commitment by the Rudd Labor opposition, and it is a priority for COAG, for the Productivity Commission and for the states. Historically, the 19th century saw the rise of safety legislation for the old factories and shops, going back to 1878 and 1901. By 1970, each of the six states had their own OHS statute based on the traditional British model. The weaknesses of this traditional approach were well known to most people. There was a mass of detail, there were technical rules which were difficult to understand and not kept up to date, and standards were ad hoc and mainly based on factory based physical hazards. There was uneven coverage across workplaces. It really did not give much incentive to innovate to look for better arrangements for workers and it did not give much incentive for employers to do likewise.

Before the 1990s most of the OHS regulations in the Australian jurisdiction were in separate instruments. It was not uncommon for each jurisdiction to have dozens of sets of regulations, each covering a specific hazard. So we were left with a great legacy of problems of overregulation and trouble in terms of working out which particular regulation, instrument or law applied to which workplace. The sad thing about the previous coalition government was their desire to drive trade unions from the workplaces of Australia. That had an impact not just on wages and conditions but also on OHS. In fact, I just could not understand why they put in prohibited content the idea that workers could be paid leave to attend meetings conducted by and made up of trade union members, which would include OHS training. It goes to show the extent to which they opposed OHS training in the workplace. The idea of averaging out your work over a maximum 12-month period, effectively overriding the 38-hour week, had the impact of increasing the likelihood of an overworked labour force and, therefore, more injuries in the workplace, not to mention restrictions on right of entry in the circumstances.

The 2007 Queensland inquiry into the impact of Work Choices on Queensland workplaces found that employers and employees were extremely apprehensive about job security, leading many employees to refrain from raising occupational health and safety issues. That is no surprise because trade unions have been critical in raising the awareness of OHS and forcing greater commitment by management to prevent accidents. There has been a great deal of struggle by the unions to improve the laws in this regard. They have demanded so much more on behalf of their members who have suffered disease, injury and illness as a result of failures in the workplace.

The University of New South Wales study in 2005 reviewed 106 cases published between 1966 and 2005, measuring OHS effects on job security and workplace changes, which included a number of indices such as injury, disease, hazard exposure, stress and compliance with OHS laws and management systems. The results were compelling. Of 61 studies of job insecurity and downsizing, 53—87 per cent—found adverse OHS effects. Among 23 studies of outsourcing, subcontracting and home-based work, all 23—100 per cent—found an adverse effect on OHS. Of 22 studies of casual work labour hire, 15—68 per cent—found worse OHS comparable to permanent employees. That goes to show that the casualisation of the workforce and the driving out of trade unions from the workplace resulted in greater hazards to workers.

The James Hardie situation is probably the starkest example of a company’s failure to care for its workers’ occupational health and safety. It is expected that 30,000 to 40,000 Australians will have contracted an asbestos related cancer by 2020. This compares to the 40,500 military deaths suffered by Australians in World War II. The mining and manufacturing of asbestos products took place in Australia for most of the last century. It was widespread until the 1980s. From the 1950s until the 1970s, Australia was the highest per capita user of asbestos in the world. Every third domestic dwelling built before 1982 was thought to contain asbestos. It was used in cement sheeting or fibro—I grew up in a fibro house—until the mid-1980s. Asbestos was finally banned in Australian workplaces only in January 2004.

The Productivity Commission inquiry in 2004 on national workers compensation and occupational health and safety frameworks pointed to the compliance burdens, costs and inefficiencies of multistate employers having 10 principal workers compensation schemes and OH&S regimes. The Howard government did little in this regard. They seemed to want to federalise OH&S in some respects, but it seemed to have the effect of reducing protection for workers. For example, the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Act 2005 reduced the need for employers to consult with unions over the appointment of health and safety representatives. The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Promoting Safer Workplaces) Bill 2005 invalidated industrial manslaughter provisions of the ACT Occupational Health and Safety Act and of similar industrial manslaughter laws enacted by the states and territories. They are just two examples of where the previous government failed in terms of OH&S.

The Rudd government is committed to safer workplaces. As I said, the former Howard government failed to address significant issues in the area of workplace health and safety because of its blinkered ideological obsession with Work Choices. We must rid ourselves of the legislative and regulatory contradictions, distinctions and double-ups. Workplace health and safety will not be forgotten under the Rudd government as it was under the Howard government. We believe that inaction in the area of workplace health and safety is bad for business and bad for employees. I am happy to speak on this bill because it affects my local community, where so much industrial activity goes on. We have in Ipswich 43 per cent of the industrial land in South-East Queensland, so it is a very important issue for my local community. At its core, this bill ends unnecessary duplication and overlap. It will harmonise occupational health and safety regulations, uphold existing safety standards, streamline the different state systems and reduce complexity for all concerned. It delivers on our pre-election promise to commit to safer workplace reform and to introduce legislation to establish a national body tasked with adopting a uniform state and territory approach to occupational health and safety and workers compensation.

The announcement of the new body, Safe Work Australia, follows agreement between the Commonwealth, states and territories to harmonise laws and systems. This intergovernmental agreement, reached at the Workplace Relations Ministers Council on 3 July 2008, commits all jurisdictions to a process for the adoption of model occupational health and safety laws that will enable the development of uniform, equitable and effective safety standards and protections for all Australian workers. Governments on both sides have done this on numerous occasions in the past in the areas of corporation law and defamation law, and the current government is doing it in the area of family law.

Safe Work Australia will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council established by the Howard government, which was simply an advisory body. What we are doing today is a huge departure from that body. Unlike the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, Safe Work Australia will be an independent, reform focused body with the power to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council. It is certainly an advance on the previous government’s model. It is intended that Safe Work Australia will end complex and costly inconsistencies in occupational health and safety and workers compensation laws across Australia. As the minister promised, it is an inclusive, tripartite body.

It is a disturbing reality that more than 250 Australians were killed and about 140,000 seriously injured last year. The cost to the Australian taxpayer is upwards of $34 billion a year. That is an extraordinary cost to the Australian taxpayer. And, for those people who experienced the Box Flat mining disaster, the cost to them was horrendous. As the Deputy Prime Minister aptly stated:

Our health, safety and compensation systems are in a sorry state—unnecessarily complex and costly.

It is a sad reality that inconsistencies between the jurisdictions expose workers to a greater risk of working in workplaces with poorer safety standards. It is simply unacceptable in the 21st century that we have such complexity, paperwork and costs for the 39,000 Australian businesses that operate across state boundaries.

Safe Work Australia will be a nationally independent statutory authority established to lead and improve occupational health and safety and workers compensation. Its membership comprises the Commonwealth, states and territories, workers, employers and the CEO. It is great that we have workers’ representatives on this body, because they are the ones, along with employers, who experience this day in and day out. This is a significant departure from the attitude of the previous government with respect to the involvement of workers’ representatives. I am not fazed or worried about the review, which will be conducted every six years. There seems to be some consternation opposite in relation to this issue. It does not concern me at all, because I think that this process needs time to work its way through.

With an initial budget of $17 million and an independent chair, this statutory body will be a prescribed agency under the Financial Management and Accountability Act. One of the first tasks it will undertake will be to develop the model occupational health and safety legislation for all jurisdictions. The Inter-Governmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety, which was signed by the leaders of the eight jurisdictions, is a landmark agreement. It is the first time in the history of our Federation that governments from each state and territory have formally embarked on harmonising our occupational health and safety. The intergovernmental agreement underpins the Council of Australian Governments agenda to harmonise occupational health and safety across Australia by 2011. The Workplace Relations Ministers Council will be responsible for undertaking this process, with details delegated to the new national occupational health and safety body. The objective of the reform covered by the agreement is to produce the optimal model for a national approach, as I said.

I am pleased to speak on this bill because it will have a big impact on the meatworks where I had my first job, which employs 2,300 people in the local area; the coalmines, which still operate in the wider Ipswich area; the gas stations; the railway workshops in the Ipswich area; the butter factory, where my father worked; and so many other businesses which make up the Ipswich area, including the booming aerospace industry. Safety in the workplace for white-collar workers and safety in the workplace for blue-collar workers is essential, and we cannot ignore those challenges.

It is terrific that the Rudd government is undertaking this task. It is appropriate. And it is a sad indictment that, after nearly 12 years, the Howard government failed, and failed miserably, in this regard, blinkered by their obsession with Work Choices and their attack upon the working men and women of this country. It is a shame that they failed in this regard and it is left to us, on this side of the House, to undertake the task to protect the rights and interests of workers not just in terms of their wages and conditions but in terms of their occupational health and safety. I commend the bill to the House.