Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 [No. 2]
The Rudd government reintroduced the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 [No. 2] to give effect to the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform and Occupational Health and Safety agreed by COAG on 3 July 2008. The government made a commitment in the intergovernmental agreement, and we are honouring it. The intergovernmental agreement is a watershed in Commonwealth-state relations; indeed, it is a model of cooperative federalism. For the first time, governments from each state and territory and the Commonwealth formally committed to the harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws and to working together to implement uniform legislation complemented by consistent approaches to compliance and enforcement. We recognise that occupational health and safety is primarily a state and territory responsibility and that true reform in this area can only be achieved with the Commonwealth, state and territory governments working cooperatively. We remain obligated under the IGA to use our best endeavours to create an independent statutory agency in the terms which are laid out by that historic agreement. This bill will establish Safe Work Australia as an independent statutory body with primary responsibility to improve occupational health and safety and workers compensation arrangements across Australia.
No matter how you look at the dry OH&S statistics, thousands of Australian workers are killed each year as a result of traumatic injuries and long-term diseases, such as those from asbestos. Official figures put the number at about 300 deaths and 140,000 injuries per year. This does not even begin to take account of the long-term, slow-burn tragedies such as asbestosis. Some OH&S practitioners believe that, when all the stress related heart disease victims are counted, when all the shift work related diseases are counted and when all the chemically related cancers are counted, the figure for yearly fatalities is actually far greater. And this does not count the hundreds of thousands of injuries and the suffering of workers and their families. All the statistics in the world do not capture what the silent eyes of workplace widows have told me in workplaces. It is heartbreaking to know how much of all this can be prevented, and prevented reasonably simply, with little cost. Think of the terrible fatality record we are seeing at the moment in Western Australia in the mining industry, with yet another poor miner killed just this week. How is it that we can see into the outer reaches of the universe, create things are so nano-small they are bordering on science fiction, yet we are unable to stop a worker losing his arm in a conveyor belt incident?
Workplace health and safety has been a deep concern of the labour movement since its foundation. The fight for humane hours of work was an OH&S issue. The 19th century struggle to protect children working in mines and factories was a health and safety issue. The chimneysweep work was killing them. The mercury in glues was sending hatters crazy. Making matches from certain chemicals was disfiguring workers. Along with the struggle for fair wages and the right to negotiate collectively, the labour movement has fought for the health and safety of its members and their families. I can tell you that, after the Longford explosion, the city tunnel drowning in Melbourne or the Beaconsfield drama, yet again I could see us re-fighting the same old battles in occupational health and safety that have existed as long as European settlement in Australia. We do have a long way to go. One should see what some of these incidents have done to entire communities, that were never the same, and to individual workers whose lives changed forever and who are still haunted by the ghosts of poor workplace safety.
The burden of workplace injury in this nation does not fall equally. It does fall more heavily on traditional blue-collar occupations—not limited to but including mining, construction and factory work, transport, stevedoring and emergency services. The fight to ensure that people in these occupations have the right to return home from a shift with their legs, their eyes and their arms intact is one of the sacred duties of the labour movement. I am well aware, from my time in the Australian Workers Union, of the devastation and loss caused when a loved family member does not return home from a day at work. The family never stops asking ‘What if?’ or ‘How could this be allowed to happen nowadays?’—and in many cases I have been lost for words. How come? How many more of our children will need to be killed and harmed at work before the magnitude of the problem comes home to all, including those in the opposition? I know the damage done to workers who lose the ability to work and to earn through a workplace incident. I know how quickly workplaces in society forget all about the workers with disabilities and the journey the worker then has to negotiate through life. The cost to our economy is estimated at $34 billion a year, but the personal cost to those families who have lost loved ones cannot be measured other than by the heart.
Real progress in health and safety at work is seldom an immediate win-win formula when it comes to financial costs. It can be dishonest to pretend otherwise. When workers’ health and safety is improved, profit and productivity become secondary—though I can tell you that the manager who is good at health and safety usually is also good at managing matters of productivity. Good health and safety standards do not always immediately translate into improved profits, but they do mean that workers will see that health and safety programs are in good hands—and that is the way for managers and industry to gain respect, and a lot follows from that. It is a sad fact that business always finds money and time to improve work safety after someone is injured or killed, but all too often seldom finds it before. This is a country where some parts of industry store some of the worst chemicals on earth and have done so for 25 years. These substances are not wanted by anyone in any country, yet we as a nation have done nothing about it other than to ask many groups of workers to package, repackage and again repackage these extremely toxic materials over the years. Is this what we want for our husbands, our wives, our children, our brothers and our sisters when they go to work? This is why I wholeheartedly support the bill to day.
This bill will establish Safe Work Australia as an agency that will work to develop national policy relating to occupational health and safety and workers compensation. The current draft model laws being considered by Safe Work Australia in the national occupational health and safety harmonisation process incorporate the following features: an unqualified obligation on employers to provide a safe workplace to employees and a broad approach to the duty of care—which, given the changing nature of the workplace, needs to extend protection to persons other than traditional employees; significant penalties, which are well above and beyond the penalties currently applying in any Australian jurisdiction, of $3 million and five years imprisonment for the most serious breaches; the power for health and safety representatives to issue provisional improvement notices and direct the cessation of unsafe work—a power currently available in only three jurisdictions; the power for workers to stop unsafe work—a power currently available to only 29 in every 200 Australian workers; the requirement for employers to consult employees over work related matters that affect health and safety; and the protection of the rights and roles of elected workplace health and safety representatives. The above issues may sound dry but, in the end, they will result in fewer Australians being killed, maimed or traumatised at work.
As a government we have set ourselves the goal of creating a national economy that is not hampered by unnecessary overlaps, differences and duplications between state regimes. Standardising and improving occupational health and safety regimes across Australia is a worthy goal for this parliament to pursue. Safe Work Australia will develop proposals relating to the harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements and national arrangements for employers with workers in more than one state. It will develop a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure that we take a nationally consistent policy to compliance and enforcement issues. It will also undertake data collection and research into workplace health and safety. The Safe Work Australia Council will have representatives from each state and territory as well as workers’ representatives and representatives of employers.
The importance of health and safety, and the previous government’s poor role in enforcing good standards, can be painfully witnessed in the terrible toll of asbestos related deaths in Australia. The sad tale of denial, blame-shifting and cover-ups marks a low point in corporate responsibility in modern Australia. It is heartening to know that the AWU is now doing some excellent work in Tasmania, under the union’s terminology of ‘prioritised removal’, to once and for all start a program of total removal of asbestos over a 20-year period. It is a long way to go, but the Tasmanian government, who should be congratulated, has started a whole-of-government approach to the program by appointing one minister as the lead minister, Lisa Singh, to mature this program. I sincerely compliment the Tasmanian minister on her vision. This is not an easy road, but someone has to start rather than to keep saying that it cannot be done.
I have had to face many workers over the years who have asked me if small amounts of asbestos fibres that entered their lungs could kill them. What do you say? What do you say to the wife who never worked with asbestos but had to wash her husband’s overalls and now gasps for a breath of air in front of you? Do I say to her, ‘If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters’? It is a sad thing to know that asbestos related deaths are increasing and will increase into the future as the fibres that have lodged in the lungs of workers—as unwelcome residents—over the previous decades will take their toll. British Professor Julian Peto, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says that Australia has already suffered 10,000 deaths from asbestos related disease but will suffer another 25,000 over the next 40 years. These deaths will unequally and unfairly focus on Australians who have worked in manual labour—the people who built the houses, schools and dwellings in which we live and learn today. If ever there were a case that should remind us all of the terrible consequences when workplace safety is neglected, it is this one.
This bill will help bring a new level of cooperation between governments on these important issues. Since we came to office, we have moved away from the old politics of blame and division on this issue, we have undertaken a review of the Comcare scheme and we have set up an independent panel of experts to conduct a national occupational health and safety review. This new approach of cooperation will deliver what we want: safer conditions for workers and less complex regulation for business.
In summing up this bill, though, I would like to end on one note of caution. Before, we have had tripartite OH&S bodies, hundreds of committees and plenty of fancy talk about cooperation, joint efforts and a brave new world of OH&S. If this new body does not learn to listen to workers and learn what proper listening is then nothing will change. I wish the new body well in its efforts, and the safety of all our families depends upon it.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.