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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8117

Ms BURKE (5:57 PM) —I would like to put on the record my thanks to the member for Shortland for a sterling effort under adverse conditions. She is probably suffering from a bit of work related illness herself, I should imagine! These are demanding sitting patterns we are doing and it is bringing a lot of us down with coughs and colds, so I say to the member for Shortland: well done.

The Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 establishes an independent national body whose role will be to improve occupational health and safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements across Australia. It is an ambitious bit of legislation but one whose time has definitely come. Its time actually came quite some time ago. The Rudd Labor government sees the necessity to create a seamless national framework for occupational health and safety and workers compensation not only for the individuals whose lives are at stake but for the 39,000 businesses that operate Australia-wide. Businesses no longer know state boundaries. It is anomalous to think that a business operating in all the states and territories should be operating under different terms and conditions in respect of workers compensation and occupational health and safety, but that is what currently takes place.

In my previous life, which now seems a long time ago—indeed it is, coming up to my tenth year of being in the parliament—I worked for the Finance Sector Union. We dealt with the major banks, and they were operating Australia-wide. An injured employee in New South Wales had to deal with a totally different workers compensation and OH&S system from what there was in Victoria. This created enormous complexity for the banks. They had duplications at every level to deal with this. It also created problems from a union perspective because you were trying to deal with something at a company level, but it was not at a company level. It was at a state-by-state level. These were quite serious issues.

I vividly remember the day one of the organisers rang to say that there had been a robbery at one of the outlets in Perth at which I had been supervising and dealing with the staff. Luckily nobody was killed on that occasion. It is a fairly traumatic experience when somebody walks in with a sawn-off shotgun and puts it in your face. There was a great deal of stress and anxiety and, fundamentally, then follow-up claims for workers compensation and dealings around OH&S issues about the safety of those workplaces. Each state and territory had a different regime. We had to put in place different things and it was quite complicated. At that stage in Victoria, the workers compensation legislation had been changed by the then Liberal government. In that case, because it was a stress related claim to do with a bank robbery, there was actually no compensation for the individuals involved. It was a fairly stressful thing to have to say to an individual, ‘Turning up for work in the next couple of weeks is going to be fairly tense, but having faced a fairly aggressive bank robber you are not going to be recognised, rewarded or compensated.’ If they had been in another state, yes, they would have had some recognition. In the case in Perth there was some compensation, some recognition and some time given. But for a similar situation in Victoria a couple of months later nothing was given.

This legislation is needed to take away the unnecessary duplications, the overlaps and the complexities—most importantly for the workers on the front-line day in, day out, but also for businesses so that they have a much more coherent Australia-wide set of standards. The health and safety of the Australian workforce is high on the government’s list of priorities. It is something that we have moved to very quickly and it is something that we want to get on top of. The establishment of Safe Work Australia will give us the impetus to do that.

Currently Australia ranks in the top five countries for reducing work related deaths—but, still, too many people die each year. This year more than 140,000 Australians will be seriously injured at work and more than 250 Australians will die as a result of a workplace injury. This is estimated to cost the economy $34 billion per year. But, as the member for Shortland said, that pales into insignificance when you look at the cost to the families involved in those deaths.

In my first job, which now seems a very long time ago, having left university, I worked at VicRoads. I vividly remember the day that one of my colleagues rang from the Western Ring Road site to say that there had been a tragic accident and that a contractor had died on site. As it involved a coronial inquest, the truck with the individual in it had to stay on site until the coroner could come out. My colleague had to sit by the truck with the dead worker in it for over six hours. It was a fairly traumatic experience sitting there. I remember trying to find the wife of the contractor so that we could have someone explain to her that her husband was not coming home that night. It was a very stressful day. I remember my colleague coming back to work the next day. He had worked for a long time at the Australian Workers Union and at the time was working on the construction site for VicRoads as a liaison officer. Although he had seen a lot of things in his days, sitting next to someone’s dead body for six hours was probably the most traumatic thing he had ever done. The operator of the truck was fined and then prosecuted under laws in Victoria. It was an unsafe practice that led to the death of that individual. The man was fairly young and it was his second day on that job. He left behind a wife and a couple of little kids. When you send your husband, the father of your kids, off to work, you do not think that he is not going to come home. It happens all too often and it is something that we need to take more seriously. We need to have good occupational health and safety practices in place to ensure that someone is not killed on their second day at work.

The statistics are quite compelling. The Compendium of workers’ compensation statistics Australia 2005-06 states that the preliminary number of work related serious compensation claims reported in Australia for 2005-06 was 139,630. Of these claims, 231 were compensatory fatalities. The last time we collected statistics, 231 fatalities were recorded. Of the 139,630 serious injury claims, a high proportion, 68 per cent, were male. Men accounted for 69 per cent of injury and poisoning claims—that is a fairly large number of poisoning claims—and 65 per cent of disease claims. Obviously, males are predominantly in the more dangerous lines of work—the construction, manufacturing, transport and agriculture sectors. For men and women combined, there were 16 claims per 1,000 employees—a high proportion—in 2005-06, comprising 11 injury and poisoning claims and 4.6 disease claims per 1,000 employees.

From the Statistical report notified fatalities, July 2006 to June 2007, there were 162 notified work related fatalities—146 workers and 16 bystanders. So 16 people unluckily turned up at work sites and were killed. The number of fatalities was 16 per cent higher than in 2003-04, the first year of data collection, despite a 42 per cent decrease in fatalities over the period at agriculture, forestry and fishing workplaces. Most fatalities were male—146 in total; 14 fatalities were female and the gender was unknown in two other fatalities. Five industries account for seven out of every 10 notified work related fatalities: 17 fatalities occurred at a workplace primarily engaged in construction; 17 in agriculture, forestry and fishing; 17 in transport and storage; 11 in manufacturing; and nine in mining. The most common causes of fatalities were vehicle accidents, where there were 30 fatalities. Others included: being hit by moving objects, 29 fatalities; being hit by falling objects, 29 fatalities; falls from a height, 28 fatalities; electrocution, 13 fatalities; and being trapped by moving machinery, 11 fatalities. Again, as I say, you do not expect someone to go off to work and not return.

Many people in this place will know that my husband is a paramedic. Ambos do not talk about what they do; it is one of those coping mechanisms. It is quite interesting nowadays that when he comes home from work and the kids say, ‘What did you do today, Daddy?’ generally the answer is that some guy’s heart did not work or something like that. Occasionally, if he is fairly quiet, it will be, ‘We were at a work site and there was a terrible accident.’ The terrible accidents he has seen over the years are fairly frightening. On one occasion he did recount that someone was electrocuted on a work site. He said the smell would never leave him. Again, you do not expect that to be part and parcel of going to work.

That is why we need good legislation. We need consistent legislation. We need it so that people understand it and can enforce it. On the whole, employers want to do the right thing. Unions want to do the right thing. They want to come together with a set of standards that they understand. Under Safe Work Australia we will have this bipartisan grouping, with representatives from the employer groups, the trade unions, the states and the Commonwealth coming together to ensure that we have consistency across the board. The previous government let this area fall. We are now picking it up and running with it.

The interesting thing about workplace fatalities is that they are concentrated within an age group—most commonly 35 to 44 years of age. Generally these are people with young families, so the cost and the impact are not just on the individual but on their family. It is also very interesting, if you go through the Notified fatalities statistical report, to see the types of accidents that occur. They are predominantly vehicle accidents, such as pedestrians struck by vehicles at work sites or workers struck by other moving objects, particularly in manufacturing and obviously within the agriculture area, with the rolling of farm equipment such as tractors. Another cause is workers being struck by falling objects. In my time at VicRoads another contractor was killed when, unfortunately, he was not given safety equipment at a site. He went up on a roof and a big gust of wind came along and he went with the roof. He did not get to go home. Other causes of death at work sites are falls from heights and electrocution.

We need to ensure, via this legislation, that there is a constructive process where everybody’s voice can be heard. We need to produce legislation that will govern how OH&S and workers compensation are harmonised across the sector. I commend the bills to the House.