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Thursday, 1 December 1983
Page: 3214

Mr STEEDMAN(8.41) —In the grievance debate tonight I should like to talk about the knowledge in our community of some of the dangers that not only our work force but also our society in general have to live with. The health of our working population is an immense problem and it costs this country vast sums of money each year, not including human misery. This matter has been brought up recently in Victoria because once again a couple of local councils have decided to use the spray 2,4,5-T. One of the councils is in my electorate of Casey, and the other is just outside the electorate in the Diamond Valley Shire where I live.

I was very pleased to see that the Victorian Government Caucus yesterday decided to overrule the Minister of Lands and put a ban on that product until they could test it further. Many people in the rural areas see the use of 2,4,5- T as a cheap and effective way of spraying blackberries and things of that nature, and it is, but they do not consider the long term effects. The substance 2,4,5-T has a certain base element that is in agent orange, which we all know was used in Vietnam. A Vietnam veteran, when he heard it was being sprayed in his area, talked about how he had suffered brain damage and how his two children , who have been born since the Vietnam war, have heart murmurs, eye trouble and constant rashes. I recall down in the Gippsland area several years ago the effect that this substance had on animals. A lot of stock were aborting, miscarrying, and the animals that were born were strange. They had too many legs or heads, or things like that.

The people who say there is not enough evidence to sustain this are living in a bit of a fantasy land. The Municipal Employees Union in Victoria has put a ban on this substance and it cannot be used by their members. Scab labour is brought in, and I can only say to those people who come in as scab labour to spray this stuff around that it can get in through the skin as well, it is not necessarily inhaled. Perhaps their wives and families would not be too happy when they go home with that in their systems. On the broader issue of occupational health and safety as such and the loss to the work force, an article which has been put out in Sydney entitled 'Health and Safety at Work: A review of Current Issues' states:

Every working day (on average) one Australian is killed and 1,500 suffer significant personal injury.

I should like to talk briefly about occupational health and safety, and I will refer several times to an article by Michael Quinlan in the Journal of Australian Political Economy dated July 1980. It is slightly outdated in view of some of the reforms that have occurred, especially in Victoria, but the basic facts are still the same. The article states:

At a joint meeting held between the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization in 1950, health was defined to be a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or deformity. . . . The issue of health has been surrounded by considerable ideological mystification which obscures the incidence and underlying causes of illness. . . The value system of western society has ensured that health is perceived largely as the concern and responsibility of the individual.

I believe it has a much broader base than that. The article continues:

Contrary to popular belief, there is no objective irrefutable definition of illness. Account must be taken of the underlying interest groups such as employers, the medical and legal professions, workers and the state which influence the definition.

. . . .

Little attention has been directed at the considerable health risks arising out of industrialization including the release of noxious chemicals--

I spoke of that matter at the beginning of my speech-

and pollutants. The industrial process has endangered not only workers but the public in general.

That is my point. Workers are the public in general, unions are the public in general, and when we have minority groups using toxic substances and foliants purely because it suits their economic purposes, they put the whole society at risk. The article continues:

. . . the propagation of the view that injury is an accident of fate visiting upon the individual legitimates the existing socio-economic structure and medical profession which serves it. In spite of this, a growing body of evidence indicates that the absence of health is not random but linked strongly to economic class and the income, education levels, environment, housing quality and occupations associated with this. In particular, the working class, with its lower level of income and concentration in the most dangerous jobs, has suffered from higher rates of morbidity, mortality and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

. . . .

In Australia the major source of injury statistics are the Workers' Compensation Commission in each state. These figures exclude Commonwealth Government employees and self-employed persons including those working under sub -contract arrangements. At best, only rough estimates can be made of those minor injuries not involving a compensation claim. . . .

. . . official statistics grossly understate the actual incidence of sickness at work. The reasons for this become apparent once the vested interests of employers, government, the medical and legal profession are considered. . . .

A survey comparing absences resulting from industrial disputes to those due to work injuries in Victoria between 1960 and 1969--

these are slightly out of date figures-

disclosed that injuries accounted for three times the number of days lost through strikes. This gap has widened over time. . . . With regard to injuries the pattern of incidence is far more predictable than that for strikes, and employers can take this into account in their planning. Nevertheless, the comparison with strike statistics is useful in demonstrating how much the negative impact of work on health is accepted or overlooked. It evokes little public controversy. Unlike the conscious revolt of workers against their conditions of employment, the toll of sick and maimed workers is seen as an inevitable, if unfortunate, cost of production or price of progress. . . .

Prevailing explanations of workplace illness have tended to ignore the fundamental conflict of interests and propagate myths which legitimate the existing socio-economic structure. This bias is embedded in the very terminology used to designate injury. The term 'industrial accident', for instance, implies that the negative impact of work on health is dramatic and aberrant. However, many injuries are not random but develop gradually as a direct consequence of the work process. They are not abnormal. Nor do they result from a single identifiable event. A workers back may deteriorate through prolonged exertion. Disease may occur through the slow absorption of poisons, fibres, dust and be exacerbated by accumulated stress and resort to drug palliatives.

. . . .

Workers and specific groups of migrants in particular have frequently been accused of malingering or exaggerating their injuries in order to obtain a larger compensation settlement.

We have heard a lot of this from the other side of the House over the years. The article continues:

Available evidence indicates, however, that the bulk of workers suffer severe financial hardship and emotional stress as a result of illness. The heated discussion of compensation rackets, fraud and neuroses has acted as a smokescreen which obscures human suffering, suggests workers gain from sickness and excuses the absence of effective rehabilitation facilities for those workers unable to carry out their previous job. It is in the interests of employers and insurance companies to minimize their liability and legitimate this by accusing workers of malingering, fraud, and deviance.

. . . .

Trade unions have often been at the forefront of demands for better safety standards at work. This has been particularly so for those with members in the metal trade, building, construction, abattoirs and mining where hazards are most apparent.

. . . .

The direct industrial demands of unions in the area of occupational health have been generally restricted to the provision of make-up pay, sickness benefit claims, less taxing jobs for incapacitated workers, establishing guidelines for early retirement, the presentation of members' cases (through union paid barristers) before the Workers' Compensation Commission and at common law, and the extension of employer liability for specific injuries such as deafness. By and large, these demands are directed at the consequences of illness rather than its causes. Some unions have devoted enormous space in their journals publicising the size of settlements obtained for crippled workers while failing to mention any action over the conditions which gave rise to such horrific injuries.

Much of this is being cleaned up in Victoria at the moment. The Victorian Government is currently passing legislation relating to occupational health and safety. This is being serviced and put together with the assistance of the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Victorian Trades Hall Council Occupational Health and Safety Unit run by John Mathews and Nick Calabrasi. I think they are to be congratulated for the guidance they have given to the Victorian Government. In the Federal sphere, we will soon be introducing similar legislation. I hope that it will be as effective as I perceive the Victorian legislation to be. The aim of the occupational health and safety legislation is, as I mentioned earlier, not to play up the illnesses and accidents, but to stop illnesses, accidents, loss of life and maiming of the workers and citizens of this country.