If safety culture begins at the top, what message is the Australian Government sending on insulation installer deaths?

If safety culture is set and developed by leaders, what does it mean when a Prime Minister launches a scheme that places the creation of jobs over the need for worker safety?

Two days before International Workers’ Memorial Day, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Four Corners program analyses the failed insulation scheme initiated by the Australian Government in 2009.

According to the Four Corners website:

“Four Corners takes a forensic look at a chain of events that began with so many good intentions but ended in death and political humiliation. What exactly were the warnings given to the Department of Environment and the Minister Peter Garrett? Why did senior officials inside the Department reject safety concerns, preferring to play up the job creation aspects of the program?”

An audio preview of the Four Corners is available online.  In that interview a whistleblower from the Department of the Environment states that

“..we were told that safety was of less importance than job creation.”

Much of this information is already in the public domain but Four Corners pulls this information together and presents evidence with the added benefit of exclusive interviews with the family of Matthew Fuller, a young insulation installer who died from electrocution while undertaking his duties.

Only last week, Australian lawyer, Michael Tooma noted the exemption of Ministers of the Crown under the new Work Health and Safety Act (WHS) .  He said he had read and reread the findings of the OHS review panels but could find no recommendation for this exemption.  It seems to have appeared only in the Government’s response to the final recommendations.  When discussing new due diligence provisions and the “officer obligation” in the WHS Act, Tooma said:

“The officer obligation goes something like this.  In relation to officers in the private sector we’ll adopt the definition in the Corporations Act, fine, that makes some level of sense.  In relation to the public sector, we’ll adopt a definition that reflects the same sort of [unclear] to people who can influence the entire organisation’s operations in the public sector, except for, wait for it, Ministers.

…… I looked in vain for the policy rationale for the exclusion of the word “Minister” from the definition of “officer” in relation to the public sector.  Then I thought to myself, that seems okay.  It’s not as if Ministers occasionally put in place a program that might have an impact on health and safety…….”

There is no suggestion that the exemption related to the performance of the Minister responsible for administering the insulation scheme, Peter Garrett, but when government departments and authorities have had additional OHS obligations placed on them through the OHS harmonisation process, the exemption for Ministers is inconsistent.  Tooma’s search for the “policy rationale” should be turned into a question to the Government and perhaps Four Corners asks that this evening.

The exemption also runs counter to the principles and beliefs applied in OHS law and advocacy.  The dominant thought in the safety profession is that safety culture can only be changed from the top down, through example and leadership.  What example is the Australian Government setting when a Minister, or Prime Minister, has no OHS obligation in relation to a scheme that they introduced, that was poorly defined, was poorly enforced and led to the deaths of four workers?  Will this be an example of establishing a safety culture through leadership taught in seminars?  Or will it be an example of political avoidance of responsibility?

In April 2010, the Minister now responsible for the insulation scheme, Greg Combet, announced that the scheme will not continue, a direct reversal of commitments made by Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, earlier this year.

The insulation scheme was always intended to be a scheme for creating jobs which was wrapped in the green shawl of environmentalism and administered by the Department of the Environment.  The ABC News website quotes Kevin Herbert, from the Australian Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association who was at a meeting with the Government over the scheme in February 2009:

“From that first meeting it was apparent that this was going to go ahead no matter what, and that the Government had made a monumental error in tacking [the insulation program] on the back of an employment scheme and an energy efficiency scheme. That’s just a bad mix….It was never going to work in the way they wanted it and they should have known that.”

The media has focused considerably on the political clumsiness of the insulation scheme.  They always like to see a political scalping and they went all out for that of the Minister, Peter Garrett.  But the story of safety in this whole saga is perhaps the saddest and the most instructive.  Within two years the Federal Government has confirmed the Opposition’s claims that the Government is a poor economic manager even though, on the global scale, the Government’s economic management has been applauded.  Within that same period at least four people have died unnecessarily, and “entrepreneurship” has shown to have little, if any, regard for the safety of workers.

The Government is yet to be held accountable for its poor development and management of its job creation scheme.  The cancellation of any insulation subsidy scheme, it is suspected, was intended to remove the (media) heat from the debacle but there are State-based investigations and, perhaps, Coronial inquiries to come into four worker deaths.  The heat is not going to disappear although it is expected to diminish.  But by April 2011, Australia will face a federal election and it is likely that the Government ministers will face protesters holding pictures of their dead young men and accusing the Government of having blood on their hands.

Kevin Jones

The Four Corners program will be available to watch online from 27 April 2010 for a short time.

There are many SafetyAtWorkBlog articles on the insulation scheme.  The best way to access these is by using the search function on the right and using the keyword “insulation”.

reservoir, victoria, australia

8 thoughts on “If safety culture begins at the top, what message is the Australian Government sending on insulation installer deaths?”

  1. What I find beyond frustration and ability to cope with is that in every contract to build, modify, alter, manufacture etc is the unwritten and not spoken of costing of workplace injuries and x numbers of workplace deaths.

    Thus regardless of what OHSW is put in place or however the harmonization process is to happen, the truth is that the cost of workplace injuries and workplace fatals are taken care of by the way of insurance payments.

    It is way past time for the OHSW and WorkCover industry\’s to tell the truth about the need for workers to attend unsafe workplaces just so that the OHSW and WorkCover industry\’s can have something to do to justify their exisitence.

    Go to any WorkCover industry web site, and you will find industry seminars, conferences, information sessions, webinars, traning schedules and the like.
    There is a great deal of money to be made out of making unsafe workplaces \”safe\” and a great deal of money to be made out of the broken bodies of the injured workers.

    Just as it is not in the petrochemical industry\’s best interest to develope a petrol free mode of transport.
    It is not in the OHSW WorkCover industry\’s best interest to build a better safe workplace system.
    If that were not so then we would not be seeing the same number of workplace injuries and workplace deaths as we still have.

    Just think if there were no inspectors going from work site to work site issuing warnings and the odd fine, what would these people be employed to do.
    If there were not endless seminars, conferences, training sessions, webinars, what would the travelling speaking professionals have to talk about.
    It should be by now very clear that none of the professional information is getting to where it needs to be.
    Instead the highly crafted power points sessions and industry graphs sit to one side and gather dust.

    There is no duty of care, there is only an insurance cost to pay, and if the projects are fortunate there will be no death claim to be paid, so the next major project will have a lesser premium.

    Reality is not at all pleasant, it is harsh and it is never spoken of but it is the injured workers within the system who have no say but they do pay the highest price with their bodies and their lives.

    To know this I need only go to the Deceased Workers Memorial Forest where on Wednesday we will plant 15 more trees, bringing the total of trees planted since 2003 to 140 trees and ground covers.
    The forest is a peaceful place to sit and reflect, but it is also a very sad place to be knowing that each tree and ground cover represents a family missing a loved one, and also knowing that the insurance cover was in place to pay the death benifit for the loss.

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