The recent coronial finding into three workplace deaths related to an Australian government economic stimulus package in 2009 has muddled the safety profession over the political context and the OHS context of these deaths. But the finding and resulting discussions could be the catalyst for a much-needed analysis of how decisions made with good intentions in Canberra can lead to the tragic personal and shopfloor decisions in the suburbs.
The Home Insulation Program (HIP) could have been interpreted as government “interference” in the market and been badged as “nanny state” economics. However it may be possible to argue that Prime Minister Rudd could have been an economic hero if the Home Insulation Program had continued without any deaths. Recent newspaper articles have indicated that the home insulation sector doubled its workforce in response to the stimulus package (The Australian 8 July 2013 ). One person’s “nanny state” could be another’s social welfare.
One media report in 2010 mentions a Coalition accusation of nanny state economics but in comparison to the Howard era of handouts, the accusation is a little shrill. The same report outlines some of the safety benefits that resulted from HIP.
Around the same time The Daily Reckoning used the HIP as an general criticism of the “nanny state” but also said:
“….it is truly stunning that a $2.5 billion program designed to put insulation in people’s homes (a dubious program to begin with) actually killed four young Australians…and no one has had the courage to link the bad policy with the tragic result.
Think about that again – the death of four young people is directly linked to government policy – and no one has been fired, lost a job, or held accountable for it at all. If, for example, four diggers were killed in Afghanistan after being sent on poorly planned mission, what do you think the coverage in the media would be like?”
In 2011 Annabel Crabb asked an uncomfortable ideological question about the Liberal Party’s inconsistency on the “nanny state”:
“Tony Abbott, for instance, wants the Government to be more involved in the household expenditure of welfare recipients, but also wants it to keep its grubby mitts away from anyone pouring their pay down the pokies.
How can one party support such intimate interventionism on one hand, and yet – on the other – preserve its customary suspicion of the nanny state? How do the rights and freedoms of a problem gambler outweigh the rights and freedoms of an alcoholic person on the dole?”
This 2012 article by Peter Lewis and Jackie Woods provides a very useful statistical approach to how the community would view the aims of many activities that some would describe as “nanny state”:
“On issues with natural safety implications, people believe the primary objective of regulation should be the protection of health and safety.”
It should be remembered that the HIP was seen as a “green jobs” stimulus program and probably the largest Australian job creation scheme with environmental credentials. The mantra of almost all the Australian governments at the time of the HIP was “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Such programs are rarely, if ever, run past the OHS policy makers or OHS regulators prior to implementation, yet it is well known that effective levels of safety are most successfully established the earlier they are introduced to the project design.
The failure of HIP is a strong argument for greater interaction between government regulators and program developers and the implementation of formal Safety Impact Assessments in government project tendering and program development.
A moral argument can be made that the Prime Minister and senior Ministers of the Australian government at the time were responsible for the deaths of the four men, and the burning of many homes, due to their setting a policy that could not be fulfilled without sacrificing workplace safety. It can be argued that the State Governments, which had the responsibility for implementing and monitoring HIP and the safety requirements, were overwhelmed by the operational demands of HIP and failed in their regulatory duties.
But there can be no doubt that under OHS laws the principal responsibility for the safety of workers, then as it is now, was with the employers.
The OHS regulators have and will pursue these companies through the Courts. But the only accountability for the politicians associated with the HIP, other than their own consciences, will be through the ballot box.
What Australia does not have at the moment is any coordinated investigation into, amongst others:
- the effects on OHS of the government’s decision making processes on the economy,
- the opportunities presented to small companies by such stimulus packages,
- the preparedness of businessmen to seize these opportunities without adequate consideration of the risks to workers,
- the level of resources required by State OHS regulators to address the inspectorate and licensing needs of a program that was foisted on them at extremely short notice, and
- the awareness of homeowners to the risks presented to building contractors on their premises,
The success and failure of the Home Insulation Program is a great opportunity for an analysis of how decisions at the top of the political structure in Australia can lead to fatal decisions in workplaces or, in the HIP case, the roof space of a domestic home. Such an analysis could change the way workplace safety is understood and applied in all Australian businesses.