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Education and Employment Legislation Committee
Safe Work Australia

Safe Work Australia


CHAIR: I welcome Ms Michelle Baxter, Chief Executive Officer from Safe Work Australia. Ms Baxter, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Ms Baxter : No, thank you, Chair.

CHAIR: Brilliant answer. I will hand you over to Senator Sheldon.

Senator SHELDON: Thanks very much for that and welcome tonight. You may have heard there's a series of questions we've been asking about coronavirus and the preparedness of various departments and communications and information to the workforce. You might briefly explain what Safe Work Australia does with regard to recommendations on best practices on workplace safety and health, and then I'll ask you a couple of questions about coronavirus after that.

Ms Baxter : Thank you. Safe Work Australia is established under the Safe Work Australia Act as a statutory authority. Safe Work Australia is comprised of its members, who are one representative each from each of the jurisdictions, including from the Commonwealth; two representatives representing workers nominated by the ACTU; and two representatives nominated by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group respectively.

Safe Work Australia has a number of functions under its enabling legislation, primarily in respect of policy development and in respect of work, health and safety and workers compensation. We also have a data function and relevantly, to the question you've just asked, we also have an educational and awareness function in terms of providing information, education and awareness in relation to work, health and safety, and workers compensation issues.

Senator SHELDON: Thanks. Regarding policy areas and safe practices for workplaces, and particularly with coronavirus, have there been any communications that you're aware of from various authorities that carry a series of responsibilities in the states, or are there any communications that you've put out regarding coronavirus?

Ms Baxter : Yes.. On about, I think, 30 of January this year, Safe Work Australia put up some information on its website in relation to coronavirus as an emerging issue and set out the duties and obligations of persons conducting the business or undertaking and workers. We also set out some advice in relation to—essentially information that's already out there in the public domain—good hygiene, handwashing and that type of thing.

Senator SHELDON: Is there any specific advice that you've allocated to high-risk industries, such as food delivery, parcel delivery, ride share in the case of further cases of coronavirus in Australia?

Ms Baxter : No, there's no specific advice that we've put out in relation to specific industries. The advice that we've put out is general in nature.

Senator SHELDON: Do you intend to revisit what advice you would put out to specific industries?

Ms Baxter : I think if there were some further evidence coming forward that caused us to revisit the issue, then yes, we would.

Senator SHELDON: Food delivery services have obviously expanded as part of the new economy in services. In China reports are that food delivery services have expanded by 20 per cent during the coronavirus epidemic there. In the case of the US, there have been double-figure increases in food delivery services during the coronavirus epidemic—that's, again, quoting from industry sources on the public record. There's obviously attention to that particular area. Where there could be high risk, are you preparing to say what would be the right systems to put in place to mitigate any potential exposure? Are you planning on any sort of arrangements for those types of workers?

Ms Baxter : I'm not aware that there would be any particular or special arrangements for particular industries or cohorts of workers. As I said in response to your question a moment ago though, if evidence came forward that there were justifications for differences in approach in how to try to manage the risk of coronavirus, then I think we'd certainly take a fresh look at it, yes.

Senator SHELDON: In the case of general nature that doesn't specifically go to industries, more broadly across the community, what are the various languages that communications are represented in?

Ms Baxter : At this stage, my understanding is it's in English only. However, what I'm not aware of—and I can take this on notice—is whether work, health and safety regulators may have picked up that information or, in fact, built on it and gone out to their jurisdiction in other languages.

Senator SHELDON: I'm mindful that people would come to Safe Work Australia to obtain information along with those other agencies. In the case of the food delivery industry, the rideshare industry and across other industries, there are large numbers. But what I consider as high risk, in the case of an outbreak, is people sitting at home or in 14 days self-exclusion. There's need for direction about what the most appropriate way to deal with those circumstances is. The vast bulk of workers in those particular industries are from a non-English speaking background, so the communications being in something other than English is critically important. Minister, is there an intention for the government to allocate funds, if that's the issue, or request the department to—

Ms Baxter : If I may, there's no issue with regard to funding to get these documents or information translated. It's more an issue of we as the national policy agency often having to be heedful of our state and territory work, health and safety regulators who have those direct relationships into the communities and have, on other occasions, in respect of other work, health and safety matters, indicated to us that they want to be able to get up close and do the work with those particular sectors of their jurisdictions.

Senator SHELDON: But you're unaware of whether they're actually doing it or not.

Ms Baxter : I don't have that information. As I said, I will take that on notice and bring that back to you.

Senator SHELDON: It's extremely important. I'm very interested in that information. How long do you think that would take?

Ms Baxter : We would need to contact each of the jurisdictions, and we're dependent on their ability to provide that information to us. I would suggest that we can get that back in the time frame for questions on notice in relation to this hearing period.

Senator SHELDON: Let's hope coronavirus doesn't get any more serious, as all predictions are that it will.

Senator WALSH: I'd like to ask some questions about silicosis and the National Dust Disease Taskforce, established by the Chief Medical Officer last year, which is a task force that I believe you're part of, Ms Baxter. Is that right?

Ms Baxter : Yes, that's correct.

Senator WALSH: I note that this is a strong area of interest for my colleague, Senator Bilyk, who can't be here, but I want to acknowledge the work that she's done in this area. Last December the task force provided some interim advice to the minister, and the advice was quite sobering. It suggested that silicosis, which is a known and preventable disease, has re-emerged, suggesting a lack of attention and action had led to more workers contracting the disease. It indicated that the issue is more severe than previously thought, especially given that the advice states there is 'very limited information, data and robust research available and no identified treatment options'. Are you in agreement with the advice and with that summary of the advice?

Ms Baxter : Broadly, yes. My views, in that regard, are guided by a number of medical professionals who are also on the Dust Disease Taskforce, noting also that Professor Brendan Murphy is the chair of that task force.

Senator WALSH: Are you able to provide the committee with information about how many cases of silicosis were diagnosed last year?

Ms Baxter : I'll hand over to Ms Raven. She can provide a better answer than I on that.

Ms Raven : The shorter answer is no. We don't have data that looks at diagnosed cases of silicosis. What we have available through Safe Work Australia is national claims data. Within that data we can see claims that have been made historically for silicosis.

Senator WALSH: How many claims were made for silicosis last year?

Ms Raven : Just to confirm in terms of the latest data that we have available, the most recently published national dataset claims data that we have is for the 2017-18 financial year. That data is still preliminary. What that means is that claims within that particular cohort are still potentially open and accruing payments. I can certainly relay that I think it's in the period between 2010-11 to 2017-18 that there were a total of 60 accepted claims for silicosis.

Senator WALSH: Sixty claims in the six years up to that reporting period of 2017-18 and you don't have information about the number of claims for financial year 2018-19?

Ms Raven : No. The national dataset is compiled annually, but there is a bit of a lag in the data because it is based on claims data coming from each of the workers compensation schemes. Like I said, the most recent year that we have is 2017-18, and even that data is still subject to change as claims are finalised and payments and time is taken from work.

Senator WALSH: So you're not able to advise the committee as to whether there has been an increase over time in the number of claims for silicosis, if that's your data—or are you able to advise us?

Ms Raven : I could take on notice and have a look at the time series, but if you're looking at 60 claims over a period I would be cautious about interpreting any particular trends at that time. We're aware from updates from Safe Work Australia members that claims are currently being made and accepted. Once that current cohort of claims comes into the dataset we will have a much better idea of what the national trends are doing.

Senator WALSH: Just to cover the data you do have from 2011 to 2017, is it broken down annually and can you see any trend, even in the 60 cases that are there?

Ms Raven : I don't have that data with me. I'm happy to take that on notice.

Senator WALSH: I'm advised in relation to the task force that the number of known cases is rapidly climbing and that there are different ways of reporting on it. I have an estimate of around 350 cases of silicosis nationwide. I understand what you've said about your data being focused on claims, but are you able to advise as to whether that is accurate or you've got any kind of estimate about the total number of cases?

Ms Baxter : We don't have a figure at the moment that would be derived from those jurisdictions who, in particular, are undertaking health screening in relation to advanced or accelerated silicosis. We are aware though that those jurisdictions that are undertaking health screening are finding a number of cases.

Senator WALSH: So, anecdotally, more cases are being reported?

Ms Baxter : Correct. Noting however that there is actual screening of whole populations going on in relation to accelerated or advanced silicosis. For instance, in Victoria my understanding is that the whole population of stonemasons working in the engineered stone benchtop sector have been or have been offered health screening for advanced or accelerated silicosis.

Senator WALSH: Your agency does not interact with that work?

Ms Baxter : That's work being undertaken in the various jurisdictions that are undertaking the work at the moment. I'm not trying to mislead you. Not all jurisdictions are undertaking health screening.

Senator WALSH: So this is work that is being done by Safe Work Australia?

Ms Baxter : No, this is work that has been done by the individual jurisdictions, either by their public—

Senator WALSH: Do you mean by the state government?

Ms Baxter : Yes.

Senator O'NEILL: Are they reporting to you their findings?

Ms Baxter : No, they are not. I think we've asked previously.

Ms Johnston : As Ms Raven indicated, Safe Work Australia members report back to us, but that's not a formal reporting mechanism. There's no dataset that we collect. We are aware of the cases. At Safe Work Australia members meetings they will tell us what they're finding in their jurisdictions. It's not data that we collate or compile or that they formally are required to provide to us.

Senator O'NEILL: Do you have a summary document that outlines the scale of testing that's available in the different jurisdictions—the differentiated practices that are going on across the country?

Ms Johnston : We have had reports from the jurisdictions about interventions that they are taking. They have provided us with information in relation to their screening programs. We're responsible for the model work health and safety laws. There's no requirement to screen under those laws, so there's nothing routine that they would report to us about that.

Senator O'NEILL: I'm sure you're very aware of the black lung issues and pneumoconiosis and how devastatingly bad that was for people who happened to be working in the jurisdiction of Queensland rather than the jurisdiction of New South Wales.

Ms Johnston : Yes.

Senator O'NEILL: I say now what I said then: a lung is a lung is a lung, whether it's in Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania or any of the other jurisdictions. As a national agency with the background of that in your knowledge set, what policy position are you advancing with the government? What steps are you taking? What consideration are you giving to the need for national, equitable guidelines around practices and national, equitable access to proper screening and treatment, which we know is a management treatment and not a cure?

Ms Baxter : As well as my membership of the National Dust Disease Taskforce, which, of course, is a task force coming out of the Department of Health, and my capacity to contribute to the thinking of that task force in developing a national approach, there are a number of initiatives that we are undertaking in Safe Work Australia also. Ms Johnston could probably talk to those in better detail than I can.

Ms Johnston : As you may be aware, we recently republished our workplace exposure standard, reducing the exposure standard for RCS. That was published in December 2019. We've also published national guidance into working with silica and silica-containing products. That was also published in December 2019. One of the interim recommendations from the task force is a national code of practice. Safe Work Australia members have already agreed that we will progress work on a national code of practice for working with silica. We're progressing that work at the moment.

Earlier last year, our members agreed a national work plan into occupational lung disease, including silicosis. There are three tiers to that, being education and awareness; research; and data investigation, collection and analysis. For education and awareness, as I said, we've published the national guide. That has only been published in English at the moment, but, given the workforce that is working with silica, we are looking into communicating that in many other languages. That work has already begun. We're doing a national education and awareness campaign. That's going to be focusing on micro, small and medium businesses, particularly in construction and manufacturing. We're promoting education awareness campaigns like Breathe Freely Australia. We're just about to publish a new occupational lung diseases report. That's being finalised at the moment. We're doing a systematic literature review on dust mitigation strategies and the data linkages programs. I could probably refer to Ms Raven about what we're doing in that space.

Ms Raven : We're actually, under that occupational lung disease work plan, undertaking a number of data investigations to see if we can get a better understanding of the extent of occupational lung diseases. That work involves looking at hospitalisations data held by the AIHW and a whole range of external data sources. A key piece in that puzzle is trying to create a mechanism or a key to link claims data with other data held elsewhere—in Health and AIHW—and we're currently in discussions with Safe Work Australia members, the jurisdictions who are the owners of that claims data, to see if we can get that key developed. That would allow us to have a look at service use more broadly, beyond workers' compensation. It would also allow us to potentially have a look at how people who have silicosis move through various systems. Potentially there are some questions in terms of the claims numbers that we're seeing. We know that there are a larger number of claims that are sort of general or other cases of pneumoconiosis that aren't actually specified, so a key piece of that data linkage work and data exploration is trying to understand whether there are cases of silicosis among those other pneumoconiosis claims that potentially haven't been identified.

Senator O'NEILL: Given the expansion of the market in silicon-based stone products, it strikes me as very concerning that in my cupboard in the bathroom I can have a jar of cream or something that says, 'No animal was injured or died in the process of making this,' yet we've got predominantly young men—and I'm mindful of having met a 28-year-old who had pneumoconiosis—often being exploited in workplaces to create stone benches that are going into kitchens for people who would be absolutely horrified to think that somebody has acquired an illness from which they will die as they were making that stone bench. That is the reality that we're talking about here. So what is the urgency in terms of action? You are critical to being part of a determined action to make a difference so that people don't get a disease that's going to kill them. Young people are going to be prevented from getting a disease that will kill them. So that's the bit that I'm trying to get a sense of.

Ms Baxter : The work that we're undertaking in relation to this area is being progressed very quickly. It's priority work for us. It's on this year's work plan. You'd appreciate that we have governance processes around our members and the role that they need to play in approving work and approving product and that type of thing, but we are moving swiftly on this.

The other thing I'd note is that this is not a space where there's an absence of regulatory framework. The model work health and safety laws already provide a legal framework to protect these workers, and they provide an obligation on persons conducting business or undertaking—PCBUs—to actually manage the risks that these workers may come into contact with.

The other thing I will note is that it's not Safe Work Australia acting in isolation here. Each and every work health and safety regulator across Australia, as far as I'm aware, is taking positive, proactive action both in terms of education and awareness in the sector and in relation to monitoring, investigating and going out and actually looking at these workplaces to ensure compliance with the laws. So there is a lot of work going on. Yes, there's more work that needs to be done, and we are working on that at the moment.

Senator O'NEILL: I have just one final question. I'm wondering how deaths of this kind intersect with the report about industrial deaths that was tabled in the Senate at the end of the year before last. Is there an intersectionality? This is an industrial death. It's happening in an industrial context. It's a slow one. It's not an immediate death that requires a crime site to be established or an investigation of that kind, but these are deaths in industrial work undertaken by young Australian men. Have you given any thought to that?

Ms Baxter : To the intersection of the They never came home report with the work health and safety laws?

Senator O'NEILL: Yes.

Ms Baxter : There are a number of recommendations in that report that we're working on in Safe Work Australia, or Safe Work Australia members have asked us to work on, predominantly in the area of family support processes. I think that would be incredibly pertinent in this area because, as you have indicated, the diagnoses that are coming out at the moment that we are aware of are in many cases those of young people. It makes the situation that much more magnified, I suppose. There are the family support recommendations from that Senate inquiry that we are working on. There are some recommendations in that report that are already being worked on and progressed in Safe Work Australia. And there are some recommendations in that report which are currently before work health and safety ministers, because they were also recommendations of the independent review of the model work health and safety laws that was undertaken in 2018.

Senator O'NEILL: If you could provide on notice an update of what you're doing in relation to that report and what you're advancing, in more detail, I would very much appreciate it.

Ms Baxter : We could do that. If you like, we could provide you—

Senator WALSH: A couple of final questions from me on this. The engineered stone product that we're talking about is still out there and being used. I am of the understanding that Minister Hunt may have sent a request to Safe Work Australia to consider the merits of putting in place importation controls on engineered stone products. Have you received or considered such a request?

Ms Johnston : Yes, we did receive that letter. That was some time ago now, though.

Senator WALSH: What progress have you made on that request?

Ms Baxter : I think the thing to note there is that Safe Work Australia has no role in relation to the prohibition of imports. That is not within our functional area of responsibility. And subject to Ms Johnston, I'm sure that that was advised to the minister. Is that correct?

Ms Johnston : That was advised. Also we did alert our members to that correspondence. They took notice of that correspondence, but again it was noted that it is not within our remit to do anything in terms of importation bans.

Senator WALSH: So the minister asked you to consider something that is not within your remit and you just told him that it is not within your remit? That's what happened?

Ms Johnston : Also, we have a Commonwealth member on Safe Work Australia, and they were aware of that request. They did take that they would raise that with the relevant department.

Senator WALSH: Does Safe Work Australia form a view about whether products should continue to be used or not? Do you have a view about whether this engineered stone product should continue to be used or whether it should be banned?

Ms Baxter : Safe Work Australia—being the members' body, the legal entity—has not formed a view or expressed a view in relation to that issue.

Senator WALSH: And you don't have a view?

Ms Baxter : Safe Work Australia is the body that has the view. That's the thing that is created under our legislation.

Senator WALSH: And it doesn't have a view about this product?

Ms Baxter : I think that would be a matter of policy. I'm not sure that it would be appropriate for me to respond in this context.

Senator SHELDON: First of all, I want to make note of a very good report that Safe Work Australia has published, the fifth annual national statement, 28 February 2020. It looked at the series of issues regarding mental health and bullying at work. As part of that statement there has been a call from the Australian Council of Trade Unions calling for health and safety regulations which guide employers in dealing with mental health hazards such as bullying and harassment. Marie Boland's review of the WHS laws in 2018, these regulations were key recommendations on what could be dealt with, to deal with these challenges in the workplace. The Productivity Commission recently made recommendations on making sure that psychological health and safety is given the same importance as physical in workplace health and safety laws, including workers compensation. I'm just referring to the fifth annual national statement identifying trends in psychosocial health and safety and bullying in Australian workplaces, published by your agency last week. What's the case regarding the workers compensation claims for bullying, harassment and mental stress and their implications between 2016 and 2018?

Ms Raven : According to the statement, rates of both mental stress and harassment and bullying claims have risen over the last two years, and the last two years are the periods that you referred to, Senator—so 2016-17 and 2017-18.

Senator SHELDON: Thank you.

Senator WALSH: Is it not also the case that women are twice as likely as men to be affected by workplace stress, harassment and bullying, as well as exposure to occupational violence?

Ms Raven : That's correct.

Senator WALSH: The 2018 Boland review made recommendations relating to this issue—namely, that there be a new workplace health and safety regulation requiring duty holders to identify and control psychosocial hazards at work, including sexual harassment, and that notification triggers in WHS laws must capture psychosocial hazards, including sexual harassment. Have those recommendations been implemented? If not, why not?

Ms Baxter : Those recommendations are currently before work health and safety ministers for their consideration and then ultimately their decision.

Senator WALSH: Okay. I just note that the review was in 2018.

Ms Baxter : Yes.

Senator WALSH: So those recommendations seem to have been under consideration for quite a long time—more than 12 months.

Ms Baxter : What followed the report by the independent reviewer was the preparation of a consultation regulatory impact statement and then a decision regulatory impact statement, as set out in the COAG RIS guidelines. Those processes, which also included a period of public consultation, were completed late last year, and the decision regulatory impact statement was progressed to work health and safety ministers in December of 2019. That forms a critical part of their consideration of the recommendations, so they currently have that before them, as well as the report by the independent reviewer.

Senator WALSH: Can you tell me what the status of sexual harassment as a psychosocial hazard is in relation to codes of practice? Are there codes of practice in place about it?

Ms Johnston : There aren't any codes of practice in place at the moment. I would like to clarify, though, that the Work Health and Safety Act does already deal with psychosocial hazards. The broad section 19 duty applies to both physical and mental health. So it's not that there's an absence of anything in that space at the moment. There is a broad duty. We also have psychological health and safety guidance which sits under that and deals with all psychosocial hazards.

Senator WALSH: Are you planning to develop codes of practice on sexual harassment as a psychosocial issue?

Ms Johnston : I guess that will depend on what comes out of the review and the consideration by ministers and what work we have to do to implement those decisions.

Senator WALSH: I think that's it.

Senator O'NEILL: I've got one. I'm not sure if you were in the room when we were asking questions about Deputy Commissioner Boyce and his scantily clad figurines. Were you here for that evidence?

Ms Baxter : We weren't here for that evidence, no.

Senator WALSH: You'll have to recount it, Senator!

Senator O'NEILL: You might take it on notice to provide the committee with any information you have. You've already indicated to Senator Walsh that women are disproportionately represented in experiences of being exploited in their workplace in a range of ways, including harassment, which might just be intimidation—or not just, but it might take the form of intimidation—or might take the form of sexual harassment. It might take multiple forms. Have you done any particular work about the impact of the continuing practice in some workplaces of exploitive images of women?

Ms Baxter : No, we haven't.

Senator O'NEILL: Would it concern you if the deputy president of the Fair Work Commission had scantily-clad figurines of women in his office on display?

Ms Baxter : I think the better question is: would that be an issue under the Commonwealth Work Health and Safety Act.

Senator O'NEILL: Thank you for that, Ms Baxter.

Ms Baxter : And that would be a matter for the department and Comcare to consider.

Senator O'NEILL: So can I go to the department for your view?

Ms Anderson : I think Comcare is probably more appropriate as the regulator. The department isn't a regulator in this space.

Mr Hehir : The act is in place and, as officials from Safe Work Australia have advised, it does cover within its terms psychosocial matters. It's then up to the regulator to advise on actually how that is assessed.

Senator O'NEILL: Given the evidence that we received this afternoon about the practices of Deputy President Boyce, what action do you believe would be appropriate for the department to take at this point?

Mr Hehir : I think the action would actually sit with the regulatory authority, so it would be up to Comcare to have a look at it.

Senator O'NEILL: Okay. I might leave it at that.

CHAIR: If there are no other questions, I'd like to thank Safe Work Australia for coming in. Ms Baxter, thanks to you and your senior officers and everyone back at your office. We will return with Comcare and Minister Cash.

Proceedi ngs suspended from 18:52 to 20 : 00