Today we recall the tragedy of the Westgate Bridge collapse.
The Westgate is a bridge that is dear to every Melbournian because, as you drive over the top of this bridge, the marvellous sweeping vista of our great city is unveiled, from Port Phillip Bay all the way to The Dandenongs.
But it also a bridge that is has an unforgettable and tragic history, not only for Victorians but for all Australians.
The Westgate Bridge accident happened two years into construction of the bridge at 11:50am on a windy Thursday on October 15, 1970.
A 112 metre long span weighing 2,000 tonnes of steel and cement collapsed into the Yarraville mud below.
35 construction workers were killed and another 18 injured, most of them with life-changing injuries.
Eighty-eight children lost their fathers in a few seconds that awful morning.
This was Australia’s worst industrial accident.
Many of those killed were on lunch break in workers’ huts when the falling span crushed them.
Others were inside the girder when it plummeted into the river.
Descriptions of how the men were killed are too horrible to detail.
The following morning, the then Premier of Victoria, Sir Henry Bolte, called a Royal Commission into the cause of the disaster.
The Royal Commission reported eight months later, attributing the failure to multiple human errors, and to flaws by the designers of the bridge, Freeman Fox. The Royal Commission also blamed the unorthodox method of construction undertaken by the bridge’s original contractors.
The designers at the time believed they were constructing a bridge that pushed the boundaries of engineering knowledge, but in doing so, their negligence cost a great number of lives.
“Error begat error,” the Royal Commission concluded.
The men who died and were injured were the innocent victims of these dangerous and calamitous failures, the Royal Commission found.
As Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations, I want to lend my deep sympathies to the families and relatives and colleagues of those who were killed and injured in this terrible tragedy.
Like all of us, I believe unsafe workplaces are unacceptable, and that we all have a responsibility to be diligent in finding ways to make our workplaces safer.
Many lives were changed that day, and any Victorian who lived in the city at that time has never forgotten the tragedy.
It is a fitting coincidence that every year in October, Australian employers and workers participate in National Safe Work Month.
This event began as National Safe Work Week in 2005, but five years ago was extended to National Safe Work Month.
It is a particular time of the year where we all renew our commitment to building safer workplaces in Australia.
This tragedy also helps shape our national focus on ensuring safety on all work sites and a shared commitment to people returning safely from a day on the job.
We are indeed fortunate that Australia is one of the safest places in the world to work, but no industry should be unsafe to work in and no death or injury is acceptable.
Injury or death in the workplace changes individuals’ and families’ lives forever so we must do everything in our powers to prevent accidents and unsafe workplaces.
The Westgate Bridge disaster was a tragic example of multiple factors contributing to a terrible accident.
It reminds us to avoid the temptation of laying blame at the feet of just one person or one group, particularly when the causes of accidents are complex.
And that is the risk we run with the types of industrial manslaughter laws that some have been calling for.
The risk is that - people who have done nothing wrong in workplaces where good policies and practices are in place - become the focus of blame.
And that might see them unfairly convicted and jailed for up to 20 years. Then it will be their lives and their families that will be destroyed.
If these industrial manslaughter laws were to be implemented we would see a shift in focus to punishment after the event.
Our current health and safety laws provide a more effective approach that has been shown to reduce workplace fatalities.
They hold companies and managers accountable for any breaches of their duty of care to workers, regardless whether an accident occurs.
And they impose criminal offences on those who breach their duties, with fines of up to $3 million for companies and $600,000 for managers.
Government action on health and safety
While every workplace death is a tragedy, the level of fatalities has been falling:
- Workplace fatalities have reduced by 48 per cent from 310 in 2007 to 190 in 2017
- The rate of fatalities has halved, from 3 fatalities per 100,000 workers to in 2007 to 1.5 per 100,000 in 2016
- And in the Construction industry, the fatality rate has fallen by 45 percent since 2007, and by 20 per cent since 2015
And the rate of serious workers compensation has also fallen 16 per cent over the five years to 2016-17.
The evidence shows our model work health a safety laws are driving the right focus on preventing deaths and injuries.
The Coalition Government has been taking action across the country to ensure workers and all Australian are safer in workplaces.
To ensure building sites are safer and fairer we re-established the ABCC and implemented a strong Building Code for the industry.
- Our laws protect one million workers and over 300,000 small businesses from bullying and lawlessness in the industry
- We have introduced mandatory drug and alcohol testing on Commonwealth-funded building sites to improve safety
- We are completing a Review of Work Health and Safety laws and their effectiveness in the industry
- The Federal Safety Commissioner has set new safety standards on Commonwealth funded building projects
- And there has been a 24 per cent increase in companies under the WHS Accreditation Scheme, cutting red tape while increasing safety
We are also taking unprecedented action on Asbestos:
- We have more than doubled the funding for the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, providing an extra $1.7m for 2018/19
- We have negotiated the first ever national Strategic Plan for Asbestos management, with all States and Territories signing on
- 150 activities are taking place across Australia under the Plan
- We have strengthened border requirements to stop asbestos reaching Australia
- And the Mesothelioma Registry has been established
Furthermore, we are taking urgent action on silicosis.
As a result Safe Work Australia will be:
- updating the exposure standards for crystalline silica
- requiring employers to monitor health of at risk workers
- developing an awareness campaign to help the industry manage risks
- And hosting and broadcasting virtual seminars on silicosis risks
Safe Work Australia has already:
- Commenced a ground-breaking review of the workplace exposure standards
- Published National Guidance on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace
- Developed nationally consistent policy on key areas of explosives regulation
- Transitioned Australia to the Globally Harmonised System for labelling chemicals
- Commenced a comprehensive review of the model Work Health and Safety laws.
Our work is comprehensive, but it is constantly evolving and being updated.
In conclusion, the anniversary of Westgate Bridge tragedy is a reminder to us all to be ever vigilant in our efforts to reduce workplace accidents because one death in our workplaces is one too many.