Tom Bramble is a Queensland socialist academic who recently published a history of Australian trade unionism. I attended his book launch in Melbourne and found it partly inspiring and partly disconcerting.
Tom (pictured here) was an excellent speaker and seemed to be a known entity to the strongly socialist audience. It was the audience that I found disconcerting. I had not been in so overtly socialist circles for over a decade and although disconcerted, the atmosphere was refreshing due to the level of passion in the speakers.
I regularly write about the industrial relations context of workplace safety so I was disappointed that Tom did not mention OHS as an agent of change. I went back to his book and looked for mentions of workplace safety knowing that there have been disputes over OHS in the trade union movement and often workplace fatalities have generated politic pressure and outrage.
There were some mentions of of safety or health conditions but these were often as an add-on to the more industrial issues such as wages. Perhaps this is where OHS should be but I can’t help thinking that safety and health can be important elements of emphasising the importance of a dispute by appealing to basic worker and human rights. One example in Tom’s book is the Mount Isa Mine dispute in 1964 where the state of amenities block was a source of tension. Given the devastating effect of asbestos, lead and other industrial illnesses, I expected health and safety to have a much higher profile.
Perhaps, my expectations were too high as I had been reading a history of the Queensland Fire Service where the safety and safety equipment were important elements and even motivators for disputation. Indeed, the issue of PPE in the emergency services remains a hot issue even in 2008.
Arguing for improved safety equipment is a useful example of OHS as an agent of change because of the direct relationship of PPE as a hazard control mechanism.
I don’t accept the position that firefighting is riskier than working in construction. Construction faces a constant presence of hazards whereas firefighting is highly intermittent even though the risks may be more intense.
Australian workplaces have a sad history of fatalities, falls, poisoning, suicides, amputations, crushings, runovers and drownings. Each of these issues have generated change in specific workplaces. Some have generated political, organisational and cultural change. It seems to me that a history of workplace safety in Australia may be needed to show people how the little brother of industrial relations affects change from an, arguably stronger moral position.