On 11 January 2010, the Tasmanian Workplace Relations Minister, Lisa Singh, announced a new safety focus on the abalone industry following the findings of a coronial inquest into the death of David Colson in 2007.
There are several interesting elements to the Minister’s decision. Firstly and, perhaps, most importantly, the decision shows the significant role that Coroners in Australia play in improving workplace safety. For legislative change, it is difficult to see any more effective political motivator.
The responses by the abalone fishing industry representatives are noteworthy for their familiarity to other industry associations.
“Commercial fishing as a money-generating activity requires risk-taking on a daily basis and those risks have to be weighed up by each individual operator… There is a risk/reward trade-off and that’s just the nature of the game.”
In OHS and risk management terms, Lisson’s comments are similar to many other established industry representatives from on-fishing sectors. They all seem that their industry is a special case when it comes to working safely but the obligations are the same in all industries and it is only the industry culture that varies.
“I think, you know, we’ve been unfairly treated there in some respects… We do take on board that we could improve our work practices, but it is a tough environment that we work in and I think generally the community understands that.”
The Code of Practice contains a disclaimer on page 4 that SafetyAtWorkBlog has not seen in other OHS Codes, and may indicate the sensitivity of safety obligations in the industry. As well as providing the Tasmanian Abalone Council Ltd with an immunity from liability, it states
“Each diver is assumed in the context of this Standard [?] to be voluntarily performing activities for which he/she assumes all risks, consequences and potential”.
There seems to be similarities in the above, and audio, comments to those of farmers and other established businesses that operate on the industrial “frontiers” – independence, self-reliance, suspicion of new concepts and a disdain for government regulation or intervention.
One of the biggest barriers to safety improvements is an attitude that big rewards are enough to balance big risks, that an activity is “inherently dangerous” or that an industry operates in a tough environment. If that were so, the Australian mining industry would still be losing dozens of miners each year. In that industry risks have been reduced in the workplace and the minds of the employees. It is difficult to see why the Tasmanian abalone industry should be so different.