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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8054

Mr ZAPPIA (1:38 PM) —I, too, rise to speak in support of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008. In fact, I very much welcome the opportunity to speak about a matter which affects the wellbeing of almost 11 million working Australians. I begin by pointing out that the introduction of these bills is in fact quite timely; it comes just after the Seoul Declaration on Safety and Health at Work was agreed to on 29 June this year. The declaration comes after some 4,000 people, including industry leaders, policymakers and experts from over 100 countries, met in Seoul in the Republic of Korea from 29 June to 2 July for the 18th World Congress on Safety and Health at Work. I quote from parts of that declaration. I will not quote it all because it is too long, but I will quote in particular from the preamble, which says:

Recognizing the serious consequences of work-related accidents and diseases, which the International Labour Office estimates lead to 2.3 million fatalities per year world-wide and an economic loss of 4 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP),

Recognizing that improving safety and health at work has a positive impact on working conditions, productivity and economic and social development …

That is in the preamble. The declaration itself, in part, goes on to say that governments should:

Ensure that the occupational safety and health of workers is protected through an adequate and appropriate system of enforcement of safety and health standards, including a strong and effective labour inspection system.

In part 5, where it refers to employers, it says:

Employers should ensure that

  • Prevention is an integral part of their activities, as high safety and health standards at work go hand and hand with good business performance.
  • It then goes on to say that employers should ensure:
  • Affirming the workers’ right to a safe and healthy working environment, workers should be consulted on safety and health matters …

Those are some of the comments made at an international meeting only two months ago where the importance of health and safety was debated and, interestingly, agreed to by people representing some 100 countries and a collection of 4,000 people, including government, industry organisations, labour organisations and so on. As I said earlier, I believe it is most appropriate that these bills are being debated in this House at this time.

The opportunity to have a meaningful job, earn an income and be self-reliant is probably the single most important objective for most Australians. Job creation underpins and drives much of our economic policy. One measure of success or failure of economic policy is unemployment rates or, conversely, employment numbers. There is no question that being employed is very important for the quality of life of a person and for the family members of that person; but, just as we go to great lengths to create jobs, we should likewise go to great lengths to ensure that those jobs are safe and that the workplaces where those jobs are created are safe workplaces—safe workplaces which ensure a worker’s safety both during the course of the work and in the years thereafter.

All too often the risks and injuries related to workplaces are not evident until many years later. That in turn makes claims for compensation or other forms of assistance extremely difficult and complicated. Only last Saturday week, whilst attending the 10th annual charter dinner of the Para districts sub-branch of the National Servicemen’s Association, I came across a typical example of a work injury which was only exposed several years after the person left the workplace where it appears the injury—or, in this case, the illness—was caused.

At that function I spoke to an acquaintance whom I had not seen for several years. He informed me that he had recently been diagnosed with asbestosis. Some years ago he had worked with asbestos products as a tradesman, and one can only conclude that the work had contributed to his now serious illness. Proving that many years later would be very difficult. Sadly, his case is similar to that of thousands of other Australians who over the years worked with asbestos products and in later years, sometimes years after their employer ceased to operate, were diagnosed with asbestosis—or mesothelioma, as it is medically known.

The plight of asbestos victims rose to national prominence in recent years as a result of the James Hardie case and the work of Bernie Banton and others associated with asbestos victims. My association with asbestos victims goes back some years. For several years I have been a patron of the Asbestos Victims Association of South Australia. I was able to assist them to establish in the city of Salisbury a memorial to the many asbestos victims who, in most cases, were victims of unsafe workplaces. I met Bernie Banton when he attended an annual memorial service for asbestos victims in Salisbury some three years ago. I also knew well Colin Arthur, the founder of the Asbestos Victims Association of South Australia. Like Bernie Banton, he too became a victim of asbestosis and a champion for sufferers of this terrible disease. Colin Arthur also lost his battle with asbestosis and passed away shortly before his friend and colleague Bernie Banton passed away.

What Colin Arthur and others were able to achieve, however, was to draw attention to the responsibilities and obligations of employers, particularly those in the asbestos industry, with respect to workplace safety. The work of Bernie Banton, Colin Arthur and others associated with asbestos disease is not over; it continues today. In South Australia, Terry Miller, who now heads the Asbestos Victims Association, and a small team of volunteers are continuing their fight for fair compensation for asbestos victims and for safety in the workplace—where asbestos products still exist—because asbestos products are still prevalent throughout communities. The handling of asbestos products poses a risk for workers, particularly workers in the building and demolition industries.

According to research carried out by Dr Mark Clements from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, the peak in mesothelioma cases is likely to occur in about 10 years time. So we have not seen the worst of this deadly disease even though we stopped using asbestos products some years ago. What makes the issues associated with asbestos even more repugnant is the fact that asbestos producers knew 100 or more years ago that they were producing a deadly product. In fact, as far back as 1918 it was reported that life insurance companies refused to issue life insurance policies to people who worked in the asbestos industries. Yet companies like James Hardie and others knowingly put the lives of people at risk. That is unforgivable. They should have faced far more serious charges than they did.

I also want to raise the issue of workplace safety in the transport industry. It was interesting to hear many of the speakers debate the AusLink (National Land Transport) Amendment Bill 2008 only a few days ago. Many of them quite properly referred to the poor condition of many roads and to the risks faced by many drivers in the transport sector which often result in the death of drivers. What was not highlighted, however, in drawing attention to the risks and injuries caused in the transport sector is that these are not just road deaths but workplace injuries as well. When the issue of injuries or deaths resulting from transport accidents is raised, the fact that they are also workplace injuries is often overlooked or not considered. These are workplace injuries or deaths, and in no way should the safety obligations of the employers in the transport sector be transferred and the injuries dismissed as just road accidents. It is also the case that transport workers, more so than workers in many other industries, often work across state borders. They provide a good example of why we need national consistency in workplace laws and compensation laws, which is exactly what this bill aims to do.

Before being elected to this place I worked extensively with injured workers, assisting them with their physical rehabilitation so that they could return to work. Some of the injuries I saw were horrific. What I also noted was that the overwhelming number of people who suffered from workplace injuries were keen to return to work and resume a normal life. Just because they were on rehabilitation programs or being paid workers compensation did not mean they were rorting the system. They did not enjoy being out of work. Their self-esteem dropped, their standard of living declined and their general quality of life suffered not just because of the injury but just as much because they were unable to work and felt that they were dependent on others. What was just as demoralising for them was the stigma of being on compensation and the lack of compassion with which they were often treated by insurance companies, government officials, sometimes medical professionals and even some of their friends and colleagues.

Sadly, many of these people are never adequately compensated for the injuries they sustain because, out of frustration with the process they have to navigate and the length of time it often takes, they accept whatever is offered just so that they can try and resume a normal life. Just as disheartening for them is that, when they do want to re-enter the workforce, they may be discriminated against because of their history of having a work related injury. It is also of concern to me that those who are in the most unsafe workplaces and exposed to greater workplace risks are often young people, migrants and those who work in lower paid jobs. Those people are often not aware of their rights or they need the work too much to speak out, even when they know the workplace is unsafe.

The other matter I wish to raise in conjunction with this bill is the impact that the intensely competitive markets can have on workplace safety and the behaviour of employers. I note that the member for Deakin, in his address, made similar comments. I endorse the comments he made about the impact on workplace safety. In recent years I have noted a trend whereby employers, in order to remain competitive, are cutting costs to the point where employees are being placed at increased levels of risk. Employees are often asked to work longer hours or to do more work because of skill shortages or simply because it costs the employer less to pay employees overtime than to employ additional staff. The result is that, with tiredness, the risk of injuries rises. The truck drivers I referred to earlier are an obvious example of this, but they are certainly not the only group in this category. It happens in so many other workplaces in the manufacturing industry, where tiredness obviously increases the risk of machine operators getting hurt. Cutting back on staff or on maintenance has a similar effect.

I want to quote from a press release issued by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority on Monday, 1 September. It relates to Qantas. CASA’s operations officer, Mick Quinn, stated:

CASA has looked carefully at the Qantas maintenance systems and performance and uncovered signs of emerging problems.

The review found maintenance performance within Qantas is showing some adverse trends and is now below the airline’s own benchmarks.

By taking action now future safety problems will be avoided.

CASA was inquiring into some safety concerns in respect of the airline industry generally and into some incidents that had occurred. The comments in that media release highlight what is happening in industries across the board where, in order to save costs, maintenance regimes are not being implemented. Obviously, what then occurs is that safety standards deteriorate. In this case the emphasis is on the public who use the airlines. But what is not acknowledged in that media statement is that, apart from the passengers who are using those airlines, there are also the pilots and crew who are working for a living, and in their case it is an occupational, health and safety issue. Hopefully, this legislation will address many of those matters.

There is another safety matter that has been occurring in recent years which has often gone unrecognised. Because of cost cutting by the private sector in many service industries, we have seen an escalation in the number of office workers who are facing risks because their workplaces are unsafe as a result of the hostile clients of those companies. Recent media statements about that very matter have revealed that the safety of office workers is being put at risk because the service is deteriorating because staff simply cannot cope with the workload. Clients become upset, agitated and angry and take their frustrations out on the staff who are working in those offices. That is another occupational health and safety matter that has resulted from cost cutting.

The last matter that I wish to speak to is the introduction by the Howard government of its workplace laws and the impact that those laws have had on occupational health and safety. I commend the member for Dobell, who made some comments in respect of this matter. He highlighted some safety incidents and how safety standards are deteriorating as a result of the Howard government’s laws. Perhaps it was one of the unintended consequences but the fact is that health and safety has deteriorated as a result of the previous government’s workplace laws.

On that very matter I was contacted recently by workers in South Australia who were gravely concerned about unsafe work practices at their place of employment. These practices appear to have escalated since the rights of working Australians were eroded by the Howard government. There is no question that, in the case of the workers who approached me, the reason why workplace safety has deteriorated is the Howard government’s Work Choice laws and the prevention of safety officers from moving into those work areas and ensuring that workplace safety is up to the standards that we all would expect. There are many examples of where workers’ safety has been placed at risk and is still at risk. With the election of the Rudd Labor government not only are those laws being changed—and that in itself will make a lot of difference to the ability of workers to ensure that their workplaces are safe—but we now have this additional bill which takes the issue of workplace safety so much further. Since I was talking about cost cutting and the implications it has for workplace safety, I make this point as strongly as I possibly can: the safety of people at their workplace should never be jeopardised because of cost cutting by employers.

I want to make one point about the constant criticisms I have heard from members opposite that this new body will be ‘stacked’—to use their expression—by representatives of the state and federal governments. Given that the new body will be jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the states, it would seem to me quite reasonable to ensure that each state contributing funds has at least one representative on the new board. More importantly, members opposite are prejudging the competency and impartiality of the people who will be appointed to this board, without even knowing who those people will be. I am sure that those people will be appointed because of their merits and their understanding of safety in the workplace and for no other reason. There will be appointments that will serve not only the interests of their state but, I am sure, the interests of the 11 million workers in Australia when it comes to matters of health and safety.

I conclude on this note: when those members opposite criticise the states’ rights to appoint someone to this board, are they now also criticising the Western Australian government, which is no longer a Labor government, or are they saying that it is only the Labor governments which are incompetent when it comes to managing workplace safety laws? I suspect that, since the change of government, they will wholeheartedly welcome the appointment of a person to this body by the Western Australian government. Whoever that person may be, I am sure they will represent the best interests of the broader community. This bill goes to the heart of bringing consensus, uniformity and some fairness and safety into the workplaces of Australia’s 11 million workers. I commend the bill to the House.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.