Workplace deaths lead to reforms but not of workplace safety

Australia’s Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, has provided a clear indication that, although Julia Gillard may understand OHS, his department does not.

In 2009, several installers of domestic insulation died.  One died from heat stress from working in the ceiling space, another was electrocuted as the metal staple he was using to install foil insulation pierced an electricity cable.  Now the political heat is on the Australian Government because it was their climate change policy that led to a boom in unregistered and inexperienced insulation installers.

The Australian Government under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been at pains to establish its green credentials since it came to power and promptly ratified the Kyoto Protocol.  There has been various rebates and discount schemes to encourage better home insulation but the boom cranked up in 2009 to such an extent that fibreglass batt insulation was difficult to locate.  The Government had made a worthy decision with insufficient on-the-ground preparation.

The take-up by consumers of anything environmentally friendly has been encouraged and, politically exploited, by the government but as was said in July 2009 in relation to US and Australian “green jobs” initiatives, no one was including safety in their rush for environmental credibility.  As a result the Australian government is now seen as “visionary” or at least “ambitious” but without the nous to support the well-intentioned plans.

The Queensland Government reacted to the death of an insulation installer by demanding metal staples be replaced with non-conductive alternatives.  This was a very short term solution as there was no investigation in to the multitude of issues that led to the use of the metal staples and inadequate training of the installers.

In October 2009, prior to the Queensland Government’s action, the Master Electricians of Australia called for a ban of all foil insulation.  The sense in this has now been realised by the Federal Government who administers most of the insulation rebate schemes.

The Electrical Trade Union weighed in on 8 February 2010 after another man died in the ceiling space whilst installing foil insulation.

The foil insulation hazards have been part of the Opposition’s political attacks that have focussed on the economic mismanagement, as they see it, of the Environment Minister, Peter Garrett.  But Garrett’s decision to ban foil insulation and to stop the insulation scheme was inevitable after an interim audit of 400 homes found around five to have live foil insulation in the ceiling.  Extrapolating the percentage to the 37,000 homes with new foil insulation, the government realised they had a major problem.

But this issue is not about worker safety anymore for this Government, if it ever was.  Outside the Electrical contractor associations and unions, the safety profession should be ashamed by not reminding the Government what the reality of insulation installation is all about.

On the Environment Department’s website is the following warning

“By 12 February 2010, installers are required to provide evidence that all people involved in installing insulation materials meet the new minimum requirements. Supervision by a qualified person is now not enough to satisfy the new training and competency requirements. Each individual involved in the installation must meet the requirements.

Householders may not install their own insulation for two reasons. First, an aim of the program is to create jobs. But importantly the second reason is to ensure that insulation is installed by suitably trained and qualified installers whose work is supervised.”

These are measures that should have been in from the very start of the program.  Or the program should have been held up pending the accumulation of insulation resources and trained installers.

Creating jobs is a worthy and necessary aim but what safeguards are in place to make sure they are safe jobs.  What good is a job that only lasts a couple of days and leaves one’s family without an income?

Minister Garrett shows his shortsightedness on worker safety in his media release dated 12 February 2010:

“Householder safety is the absolute priority under this program.”

How insulting is this to the families of the men who have died installing insulation?  The safety of installers is mentioned in passing later in the media statement.

Below is a promise by the Minister in the media statement:

“We believe that safe use of products, mandatory training or minimum skill requirements, combined with formal risk assessments and enhanced training materials, are the best ways to ensure safety for householders and installers.”

The Workplace Relations Minister, Julia Gillard, expresses pride in the Government’s tripartite negotiations on workplace safety.  Clearly no one is talking safety to the Environment Department or else the elements of Garrett’s statement above would have been incorporated into the green incentives scheme from the very start.

Green Jobs must mean Safe Jobs.

Kevin Jones

7 thoughts on “Workplace deaths lead to reforms but not of workplace safety”

  1. Several important points and a bit of balance to counter long-term hysteria on this issue:

    1. The Federal government did not install insulation — not a single batt.

    It provided a subsidy to householders to engage services of private sector installers. In court actions arising from the scheme, the people being held to account are private installers. These are the people we assume are responsible in law.

    So if you then say that the Federal government is still to blame, and
    if financing someone to do something where an accident occurs is such an established responsibility, why aren\’t banks responsible for accidents in the home-building industry? (About 35-50 deaths per year in 40000 jobs). Is there any doubt that banks have at times financed too much home-buying and building? But do we really say they actually cause the accidents?

    Or is the Health Minister personally responsible for providing Medicare funding to doctors and hospitals responsible for more than a hundred \”sentinel events\” (deaths, maimings etc) each year in our public hospitals?

    2. State governments had and still have, the constitutional power and responsibility to regulate the insulation and similar industries. If there is a need to improve regulation in these and other areas (and there is), it is the job of the state governments to do that. If regulation is weak, this is where that has to be fixed. Why aren\’t they right in line well before the Federal government?

    3. Annual rates of fires arising from insulation installation prior to the Federal government subsidy system were estimated \”normally\” — as reported by audit and Senate committee inquiries — as 80 each year for about 65,000-70,000 installations. Under the Federal subsidy scheme, there were reported to be about 200 fires out of a total of 1.1 million installations.

    That\’s about 1 in 875 before the subsidy scheme and 1 in
    5500 in the subsidy scheme. That suggests a 6-fold increase decrease in risks! Wish we had there everywhere else!

    4. The death of 4 people in insulation installation under the subsidy scheme is deeply regrettable. But in perspective of the whole building construction industry, it is even more regrettable that it was relatively insignificant if we look at the obvious comparison.

    3 installers died of electrocution in installation in 1.1 million homes. In the same year, a total of 12 workers died of electrocution in the building and construction industry. Even assuming 3 of those were the installer companies victims, (not clear), at least 9 others died in building and construction work. There were approximately 42000 separate sites in that year for construction.

    So, electrocution fatality rates were about 1 in 360,000 for insulation, and 1 in about 4600 for the rest of the industry, making the subsidised insulation scheme about 80 times safer ???

    Where\’s the Grand Indignation about the area of biggest danger?

    And from now on, if my maiden aunt gives me a few thousand bucks to go and buy myself a car, and I go and buy one that turns out to be a lemon, I suppose I can go back to demand she takes responsibility for her careless actions ?

    Really ? A new age of personal responsibility ?

  2. Kevin, everything you say is true – but where in the media and from OHS regulators has there been any mention of the responsibilities of the contract installers employers?

    Any half competent installer would know that electrical safety was a critical issue – what training and controls did they put in place? Whatever the Government\’s stupidity or laxity the employers should also be held to account.

    Regards

    Graham

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