The Sunday Age of 30 January 2011 ran an article about the status of workplace safety in some of Victoria’s abattoirs. The article has some similarities to the landmark investigations by Eric Schlosser into work practices and compensation issues related to meatworks in the United States.
The Sunday Age says that
“(Last financial year [2009/2010], there were 355 workers’ compensation claims in Victoria’s meat industry that required at least 10 days off work, or cost more than $580 in treatment, or both – almost one a day. Nationally the industry’s injury and illness rate remains twice as high as that in the construction industry, and four times the average of all workplaces.”
Many would say that meat work is “inherently dangerous” but in the article lawyer Trevor Monti, contests the perception
”Yes, it’s a difficult industry and the work can be hard,” he says. ”But with proper consideration given to the system of work, the risk of injury can be significantly reduced.”
This is a position with which OHS professionals and regulators would agree.
It is significant that, if the comparative figures quoted above by the Sunday Age are accurate, abattoirs do not receive the enforcement attention that the construction industry receives. Is it that the construction industry is largely unionised and the meat industry much less so? Is it that abattoirs are rorting the immigration visa system as asserted by the Australian Meat Industry?
Immigrant work is a slow-burning issue in Australia as it relates to non-urban industries predominantly and the countries geographical isolation has allowed governments to give migrant work a lower priority. But Australia is suffering a major shortage in labour resources and skilled workers and in the not-too-distant future, the government will face the politically difficult call of encouraging overseas labour to meet the demands of the construction and mining industries to mention just two. This will also present a challenge for those narrow-minded OHS professionals who focus on safety and exclude external political, economic and social factors.
Australian OHS regulators should pay particular attention to the 2004 report undertaken by Human Rights Watch entitled “Blood Sweat and Fear – Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants“. The investigation found:
- “Many workers suffer severe, life-threatening and sometimes life-ending injuries that are predictable and preventable.
- Many workers cannot get the compensation for workplace injuries to which they are entitled.
- Government laws, regulations, policies and enforcement fail to sufficiently protect meat and poultry workers’ health and safety at work and their right to compensation when they are hurt.”
Considerable attention is given to the human rights of refugees to Australia, and rightly so, but what of the lives of those refugees who are successful in starting new lives in Australia. What of their working conditions? What of their occupational safety and health? Any refugee or migrant labour policies must consider the long-term welfare of new Australian visitors and citizens. Hopefully organisations such as the recently established Human Rights Working Group for Business will embrace this need.
Another significant OHS issue is raised by The Sunday Age article. The article says:
“One case it [WorkSafe Victoria] did not prosecute is that of 17-year-old trainee meatworker Sharga Taite, whose 2008 death may be the subject of a coronial inquest this year.
The teenager worked for six months at Warrnambool’s Midfield Meat abattoir. The day he died, Sharga was working as a slicer in the boning room – a non-stop process of converting freshly killed beasts into neatly packed boxes of meat cuts.”
Taite’s family has alleged in court the following concerns about Midfields Meat abattoir:
“…substandard training, understaffing, lax safety procedures and bullying.”
Counsel for WorkSafe Victoria
“… said their investigation found the training and supervision at the abattoir to be ”reasonably practicable”, and that the teenager’s training had been adequate.”
A major problem with the determination of “reasonably practicable” in this case is that no one has been prosecuted over a death at work. The details in the article indicate that the death was caused by a medical problem of Taite’s and not by any deficiency of the company in managing safety but regardless, the family feels no justice. The implication in this article is that “reasonably practicable” is seen as a cop-out for choosing not to prosecute.
If “reasonably practicable” is to be such a prominent part of Australian workplace safety law then its integrity must be sound. It cannot be perceived as an excuse for “getting a company off” its OHS responsibilities. Any introduction or application of “reasonably practicable” must be supported by alternate mechanisms for families to achieve justice, however that is determined.
Sharga Taite’s death may also be an example of the opportunities granted to others by New South Wales law and to all in the draft National Work Healthy & Safety law, to instigate prosecutions or to call for prosecutions when OHS regulators have chosen not to. It would be disappointing if the Taite family did not seriously consider this option, should it be feasible.
As WorkSafe asserts in the article, safety in Victorian meatworks has improved dramatically. The workers’ compensation figures quoted are also not surprising. Several years ago, I provided support to a major workers’ compensation insurance company, along with a seconded WorkSafe Victoria inspector, to develop an online safety assessment and information product for several of its clients who had high insurance premiums. These industry sectors were aged care, cleaning and meat processing plants. As far as I am aware the project was not completed but there was considerable work undertaken and the project is likely to be languishing on an insurer’s shelf waiting to be refreshed.