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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8100

Ms CAMPBELL (4:45 PM) —Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this most important legislation, the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008, and add my voice to those in support of safe workplaces for all Australians. Is it not one of the most basic of rights to assume that when hardworking Australians go to work they will return safely to their families at the end of their shift? Is that not the absolute minimum that as a government and a community we should be demanding?

Over the last 10 years, 110 Tasmanian workers have not been returned to their families. Last year, nine workers in my home state lost their lives in traumatic workplace incidents. Just this week, WorkCover Tasmania released alarming figures which showed that each day 27 Tasmanians are injured at work. In 2007, that equated to 9,873. That is an increase of one per cent on the previous year. The majority of those injuries were soft tissue injuries due to trauma. More than 2,300 were caused by wounds, lacerations, amputations and internal organ damage. Other injuries were from falls, trips, slips and being hit by moving objects.

I understand, as do those on this side of the House, that workplace health and safety is currently a complex matter, with overlapping and unnecessary duplications and differences from state to state. As part of our commitment to a seamless national economy, this bill begins the process of reform to this overly complex system. As the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations informed the House, each year there are more than 300 Australians killed at work, and over 140,000 are seriously injured. Those are deeply distressing figures, but, more than that, they are people—hardworking men and women whose death or injury has a profound effect on their families, their friends, their colleagues and their workplaces. There is a financial cost also: some $34 billion a year. This is a cost borne by the entire community, not least the tens of thousands of businesses which operate across the country.

Since the 1970s, there has been a growing emphasis placed on health and safety in our workplaces—as well there should have been. At the same time, however, the nature of the labour market has changed and evolved, and I believe it is fair to say that the OH&S structures across states and territories have failed to keep up. Moreover, they have evolved independently of each other—for example, how the courts recognise and deal with workers other than employees may differ vastly depending on the jurisdiction. I would argue that a person’s right to safety in the workplace should not be determined by where that workplace is. And it is workers who bear the brunt of failures in this area. That is why, with the election of the Rudd government, an extraordinary opportunity was afforded us to change for the better many aspects of work life in Australia. Our agenda extends beyond the abolition of the abhorrence that was Work Choices.

Safe Work Australia replaces the Howard government’s Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which was largely an advisory council whose functions were limited. In contrast, the Rudd government’s Safe Work Australia will lead to a far more comprehensive and coherent approach to health and safety in the workplace. It will enable the development of a national policy relating to OH&S and workers compensation. It will prepare, monitor and revise OH&S legislation as well as develop a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure nationally consistent regulatory approaches across all jurisdictions. At the same time, Safe Work Australia will see developed a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure a nationally consistent approach to these two critical areas. Proposals relating to the harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements across all jurisdictions and proposals for national workers compensation arrangements for employers with workers in more than one jurisdiction will be developed also. The legislation will build expertise across OH&S laws and workers compensation schemes that will be readily accessible across jurisdictions and industries and will reduce the complexity and costs for businesses, including businesses that operate across state boundaries.

In my home state of Tasmania, there are many potentially dangerous industries, as there are right across the country, from forestry, mining and construction to the health sector, where every day nurses face injury through lifting. It is not just death and serious injury we are addressing here today but what one might consider to be comparatively ‘minor’ injuries, which still have a profound and often debilitating effect on those individuals and businesses involved.

I have discussed Safe Work Australia at some length with a range of stakeholders across my electorate, and I can inform the House that the reactions are very positive. Even those organisations with reservations are positive about the prospect of a uniform approach to workplace health and safety and workers compensation.

Unions Tasmania describes Safe Work Australia as a welcome move which it believes will restore an independent body for the centralised research and development of workplace health and safety policy. Unions Tasmania believes, and indeed I also believe, that this body will play an important role in the ongoing improvement of safety at work and will support the work of state bodies by removing the duplication of effort and harmonising safety law. Among the concerns expressed by Unions Tasmania and also, I am aware, by the ACTU, is that the traditional tripartism has not been established—that the number of government officials will outweigh the number of employee and employer representatives, when perhaps these should be equal.

I am hopeful that this legislation, that Safe Work Australia, will enable the development of a national framework for OH&S which recognises basic minimum standards. By that I mean one which includes the highest health and safety standards to protect working Australians from death, injury and illness—one which places the burden of proof on employers when they breach the law. I want to see the highest standards of rights, powers and protections for health and safety representatives.

I am firmly of the view, and I know it is very much the view of Unions Tasmania, that workers have the right to be represented by their union regarding health and safety. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the role of authorised representatives in occupational health and safety. The effectiveness of the legislation in eliminating and mitigating risks depends critically on authorised representatives who operate independently and at arm’s length from the regulator. I am aware that, in New South Wales, unions have the ability to prosecute an employer for breaches of the act. I believe that this is worth considering in a national model. Most of all, vital to the success of any rule of law are meaningful penalties for those employers who are found to have breached the law. I would urge, and I will be advocating for, the lifting of standards across the board. We have a unique opportunity to look closely at laws across all states and territories and, rather than set up for a race to the bottom, we have an opportunity to strive to learn from their successes and failures and to establish strong, coherent and effective legislation which ensures, as much as legislation can, safe workplaces.

I would like, if I may, to highlight a particularly tragic case where a young man’s life was lost in the most avoidable of circumstances. In July 2004, a 16-year-old was doing something he should never have been allowed to do, at a workplace where he was deemed not to be employed, under the lax supervision of a self-employed boilermaker, who had been retained as an independent contractor. It was, as I am sure you can tell, Madam Deputy Speaker Bird, a recipe for disaster—and that is exactly what transpired. This young man did not have a forklift licence. For that matter he did not even have a drivers licence, and yet he was operating a forklift—which, in the end, rolled, and crushed him.

To read the coroner’s report into this tragic occurrence—I will not say ‘accident’ because that implies it was unavoidable, and it most certainly was not—is to understand a little of what it is like to walk in the shoes of an employee at an unsafe workplace. The coroner observed the condition of the forklift which killed this young man. His report states that, while the condition of the machine did not impact directly on the teenager’s death, it is nonetheless worth noting. An inspection found that there was no tread evident on the left hand steer tyre and that the right hand tyre was worn. The steering link pins were worn; so too the mast pivot bushes. The handbrake was not holding properly; the cable appeared to be seized. Neither the flashing light nor tail brake lights were working. The left hand lift and both tilt cylinders were leaking oil—and I will go on, Madam Deputy Speaker: there was no tine stop bolt, the left hand tine tip was bent, the seat base was torn and there was no seat belt. The recommended tyre pressure for each of the forklift’s tyres is 100 psi; at the time of the accident all tyres were underinflated, ranging from as low as 50 psi to 64 psi. The coroner heard expert evidence that the forklift simply was not safe at the time this young man was left to drive it whilst unlicensed and unsupervised.

What this tragedy highlights, if nothing else, is the need for rigorous and enforceable workplace health and safety standards. Had this young man—ruled to have been onsite completing work experience—not lost his life, had there not been an accident of which to speak, how long would that forklift have continued to have been used in such a deplorable condition? Instead, a young man had his life cut short and a family had its life forever changed.

By way of background, the company involved in this death was the Australian Food Group—a company involved in Tasmania’s longest-running industrial dispute; a company which refused unions entry for the 18 months preceding the death and which, in the aftermath, attempted to wash its hands of any accountability, claiming that this young man was simply not their responsibility. It should also be pointed out that the family of this young man is still waiting for his funeral to be paid for, given that he was not classified as an employee.

I would argue that any legislation, be it workplace safety or industrial relations, is only as strong as the resources and competency of the inspectorate which supports and enforces it. I commend this bill to the House, confident that it paves the way for safer workplaces and hopeful that it will be employed to achieve the highest standards for workers, businesses and the wider community.