Release type: Speech


Ministerial statement on workplace deaths


The Hon Bill Shorten MP
Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation

Mr Speaker, every Australian who goes to work should return home safely.

And in Parliament, our workplace – this meeting ground of the national conversation – we are commanded by the annual death toll of people at work to get real on safety.

The latest research for the year 2009-10 -- compiled by Safe Work Australia and released by the Government yesterday -- shows that  216 Australians died at work over those 12 months and the total cost of work-related injury, illness and disease can now be assessed at more than $60 billion.

The human cost, the emotional cost, is immeasurable.  

So I believe it is time. 

It is time this Parliament recognised our failings in workplace safety. 

It is time we listen to more of the stories. 

It is time to own the statistics and do more about them.

It is time to talk of the injured and the dead and the grieving that follows each death that was needless.

It is time we increased our efforts to improve our places of work and make them safer than ever before. 

Each holiday season we warn ourselves about the road toll.  And so we should.

Each approaching Easter brings warnings about safe driving.  And so we should be vigilant this Easter.

But when Australians return to work from their holidays this Easter, there is another toll – one that doesn’t get the same attention, even though it is just as important – the toll of work-related deaths, injuries and disease.

Already in 2012, in just 75 days, I believe that at least 25 Australian workers have been killed at work and another 20 have died as a result of someone else’s work.

The official confirmation of this figure will be the confirmation of human heartbreak.

Only yesterday a 22-year-old man was killed in a workplace explosion.

And the day before yesterday a 42 year old man was crushed by a metal hopper that fell off a forklift.

Each year, on average, up to 300 Australians are killed at work and it is estimated conservatively that more than 2000 will die from industrial diseases caused by exposures at work. 

In a recent survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics over 640,000 people reported suffering a work-related injury or illness in the previous 12 months.

The personal cost to families and friends is something we only begin to understand when sitting down and listening to the grieving survivors.

I have witnessed the terrible consequences of workplace deaths and serious injury.

The grief and guilt, anger and despair felt by workmates, colleagues and bosses.

The death of a worker in a small business can spell the end of that business.

The effect on families and friends is almost indescribable.

The average age of workers who are killed at work in Australia is 37.   

37 years old... the age of John Christian Watson when he became our Prime Minister – our first Labor PM – in 1904.  

The age that Einstein discovered his theory of relativity.

A year older than Cate Blanchett when she won her first Oscar.

Imagine how many Australian champions or good parents, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends and neighbours we have lost prematurely.

Most Australians who are killed at work are men.

And most 37 year old blokes that I know have a wife and a couple of kids, they have a mum and a dad, they have sisters and brothers, mates and neighbours. 

I remember the Beaconsfield mine tragedy and rescue.

The whole of Australia willed Brant Webb and Todd Russell to be brought out of that mine alive.

We got to know them in those two weeks - their enormous courage, their resourcefulness, but most of all their amazing spirit and humour in the face of their terrible plight – trapped 925 meters underground beneath hundreds of tonnes of rock.

We all exulted joy and relief when they emerged smiling and waving.

I witnessed the joy and relief of their families.

But one miner did not make it out of that mine alive, Larry Knight.

I attended his funeral.

I saw how Larry’s family felt.  I can imagine how they are still feeling. 

Every year nearly 300 workers just like Larry and Brant and Todd go to work in the transport yard, the mine, factory or farm... the dock, the construction site or the rig, and like Larry, do not come out again.

And whilst these traumatic fatalities – which occur mostly to men - are high profile events, it is timely to ask how many women at work suffer for decades in extremely poor health and safety standards? 

...from endemic stress, fatigue and deliberate and debilitating bullying? 

How many of our women in the workforce are ground down by blatantly poor health and safety conditions at work?

This just isn’t acceptable.

And modern Australia should declare it so.

Yesterday we released the report Work-related Traumatic Injury Fatalities, Australia 2009-10.

This is the latest research report on the number of workers, commuters and bystanders killed each year from work-related injuries.

The report is sobering and sad.

The transport and agriculture industries are the highest risk industries for workers and bystanders.  Over the seven years up to 2009-10, there were 450 fatalities in the transport sector, of which 345 were in road freight.

Truck-related fatalities, across all industries, account for one in every three reported deaths.  In the seven years of reporting, 567 workers have died in truck-related incidents.

In the 2009-10 year 79 workers died while commuting to and from work and 42 bystanders died as a result of someone else’s work-related activity. 

A total of 356 bystanders have been killed since 2003.

Agriculture, forestry and fishing is another sector with an unacceptable number of fatalities – 423 over the seven years up to 2009-10.

We can never forget farms are workplaces --- 310 workers have died on agricultural properties since 2003-04.

Nearly a third of agricultural workers who died were over the age of 65.  This is three times more than older workers killed in other industries.

Not surprisingly, construction had the third highest number of fatalities with 281 during the last seven years.

We also need to consider broader measures of injury.

Primarily because of the lack of any rigorous statistics on the number of Australians dying from diseases caused by exposures at work – such as heart disease, respiratory disease and cancer.

The number of deaths from mesothelioma alone is over 550 a year and this is still rising.   A nasty legacy of Australia’s heavy use of asbestos.

We have to ask: could the true number of work-related fatalities be much higher?

I believe Australia underestimates the work toll.

Earlier this week I also released another report entitled The Cost of Work-related Illness and Injury for Australian Employers, Workers and the Community: 2008-09.

The report provides an update of the real costs of work-related injury and illness to the Australian economy based on a range of assumptions.

The highest costs result from those injuries resulting in the total or partial permanent incapacity of the worker.

Costs related to these injuries are borne mainly by the worker and the community.   These types of injuries make up a small proportion of the total injuries and illnesses but account for a substantial proportion of the costs.

The total cost estimate includes work-related incidents like loss of earnings, loss of human capital, medical and social welfare costs, costs of training and staff turnover.

But I also note work-related incidents where no human costs were incurred -- like near misses, property damage and loss of goodwill – these are not included in the total cost estimate.

A key point I want to emphasise today is that deaths and injuries are preventable.

They are not “accidents”.

It is the basics which are still killing people in Australia.

Things that we have known about for 60 years and more – the lack of or  proper guarding on machines, the absence of lights and reverse beepers on mobile plant equipment, the unsecured ladder, the faulty or absent scaffold, the use of toxic chemicals when there are safer substitutes.

An important step is proper communication and cooperation.   And it needs to include the Parliament regularly reporting the tragic toll.

Parliament needs to continue the work of employer organisations and trade unions.

The Australian trade union movement has at its core the belief that workers should be safe at work.  Unions have had many wins to improve safety.

And I believe the best form of communications is to be seen to actually make improvements in the workplace and in the work process. 

Real changes are the most powerful form of communications.

Workers need to feel that they can raise safety issues on a daily basis without fear or discrimination or ridicule.

It is about the confidence to speak up.

They must feel that health and safety issues will be addressed by management and that their concerns will be taken seriously and dealt with promptly.

Workers, their voices, their inside knowledge are all too often an untapped health and safety resource for employers. 

The manufacturing worker saying “the machine is making a noise different to the one that I have heard every other day I have come here”

..or the miner saying “At the start of my shift, this shaft of the mine was popping rocks with a different noise to what it has made every other day”. 

The vast majority of employers are diligent and conscientious and are horrified at the prospect of their workers being injured or worse.

A workplace death is devastating to them.

But we need to replace silence with cooperation.

We need employers who listen – who take the time not only to communicate to their workers but who also listen to their workers.

We need businesses that openly respect the delivery of bad news at work  --- employers  who act on the bad news and work with their staff to find solutions.

One woman who has experienced the tragedy of a workplace death in her family is Rohan Maheno.

About ten years ago Rohan’s husband Rex was killed when he was run over by a concrete truck at a Queensland workplace.

The impact this terrible incident had on Rohan and her family’s life was immeasurable as they sought to come to terms with the effects of losing a husband, father and friend.

Knowing first-hand the consequences that losing someone in a workplace incident has on loved ones, Rohan wanted to share her personal tragedy with others, in the hope that they can learn from her story.

Rohan also worked in the construction industry for another company, Baulderstone where her story is used in a health and safety program which places the emphasis on a ‘workers learning from workers’ approach and encourages an open communication between workers and managers on health and safety.

Rohan visits Baulderstone worksites to spread her safety message and talk openly about her experiences. 

The messages ‘that could have been me and my family’ and ‘working safely is about caring for your family’ are powerful motivators, highlighting the importance of workplace safety.

Rohan’s tireless efforts in helping her colleagues understand that incidents and injuries are preventable have won a number of awards.

Importantly, after the ‘Rohan’s Story’ program was rolled out across the organisation in 2009 the reporting of incidents and near misses increased.

Every company should know about its near misses -- but unless reluctance to hear bad news is replaced by cooperation and open communication, it will not. 

Baulderstone reports that there has been a significant shift in company culture and there are fewer disagreements about health and safety when a work process is challenged

There are a number of systemic problems that face many workplaces:

A poor understanding of due diligence – or in other words, insufficient understanding of what managers need to know. 

There are a number of elements to due diligence:

  1. Knowledge of work health and safety matters;
  2. Understanding the nature of the operations of the business and the hazards and risks associated with those operations;
  3. Ensuring appropriate resources and processes are available to address health and safety issues;
  4. Dealing with information regarding incidents, hazards and risks and responding in a timely way to that information;
  5. The processes for legal compliance;
  6. The need to verify the provision and use of these resources and processes.

The kinds of cultural change needed to address these kinds of systemic problems are enshrined in the Model Work Health and Safety legislation which has now been adopted in the Commonwealth, New South Wales, Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

Under the model legislation, workers must be given a reasonable opportunity to express their views and to raise work health and safety issues.

Workers must be consulted when hazards are identified and risks are assessed and when decisions are made about eliminating or minimising those risks.

This is not a regulatory burden -- it is common sense and it happens in good workplaces all over Australia today.

And let’s not forget the next generation, our future.

Each year tens of thousands of young people start work for the first time.

They have their whole life in front of them.

Eager and inexperienced, they need careful training and coaching and helping. 

None of them should lose their life before it has really started.

Mr Speaker, in Parliament we should echo the labour movement call that “an injury to one is an injury to all”.