The politics of safety

Bill Shorten third from the right at the 2012 Safe Work Australia awards in Parliament House Canberra

There is little doubt that Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, believes that occupational health and safety (OHS) is important. His interest was on show, perhaps most significantly, during his time as a union leader at the Beaconsfield mine disaster but he has spoken at various OHS awards, the opening of the National Workers Memorial, local memorials, and was a participant in the Maxwell Review of Victoria’s OHS review in 2006.

OHS has not appeared yet in the current Federal Election campaign. It rarely does. But there is an opportunity to argue that the Australian Labor Party (ALP), of which Shorten is the leader, will not only create more jobs for Australian but that they will be safe jobs. To an OHS professional, it seems to be a simple position, a position that is extremely difficult to argue against. However, the politics of safety in Australia cannot be separated from the role and activities of the trade union movement. Yet, OHS is not just a union challenge, it is relevant to all workers and their families, but only the trade unions seem to have an OHS voice. Letting this situation continue is not sustainable.

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The biggest OHS challenge is greed

As the world approaches World Day for Safety and Health at Work and International Workers Memorial Day this coming Sunday it is worth reminding ourselves of some of the immorality that unregulated Capitalism allows. A company in one of the last remaining exporters of asbestos, Russia, has used President Donald Trump’s words and image to support its production and export of asbestos*, a product known for over a century to cause fatal illnesses.

Why is asbestos still mind if the evidence of its fatality is incontrovertible? Greed, or as it has been called in the past – “good business sense”. Many authors have written about the history of asbestos globally and locally. Many have written about the injustice in denying victims compensation from exposure to a known harmful chemical. But few have written about the core support for asbestos production, export and sale – Greed.

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The dicks are swinging over OHS

A couple more election campaign publications and statements have appeared in relation to occupational health and safety (OHS), one by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and another in response to some advertising by the Construction Forestry Mining Maritime and Energy Union (CFMEU) released by the Master Builders Australia (MBA).

Institute of Public Affairs

There is nothing in the IPA report “20 policies to fix Australia” that directly relates to OHS, but there is a continuance of the desire for less “red tape”, a desire that has often mentioned OHS regulations and licencing as examples. The IPA says:

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Release of authoritative quad bike safety report is still not enough for the Federal Minister

On April 6 2018 Australia’s Assistant Treasurer Stuart Robert released the report into Quad Bike safety prepared by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC). The report makes unsurprising safety recommendations, many of these have been coming for years. The surprise is the Minister’s decision to begin another round of consultation:

“The Government is inviting stakeholders to review and comment on the ACCC’s recommended safety standard.”

The previous paragraph in the Minister’s press statement acknowledged:

“Extensive consultation has been undertaken including with technical experts, farmers, the recreational and tourism sector, consumer groups, health and medical experts, industry and government bodies. The majority of stakeholders support a new mandatory safety standard. The ACCC’s report highlights how these safety measures including installing an operator protection device can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of injuries, particularly from rollover incidents”

An indication of the level of “extensive consultation” can be seen through the process the ACCC has been running since at least November 2017. The only possible reason for this extraordinary decision is the political desire to release the ACCC report prior to the Federal Election, only just announced as occurring on May 18, 2019.

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Government Department gets an enforceable undertaking following a workplace death

Yesterday (April 4, 2019) SafeWorkSA dropped charges against the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure (DPTI) over breaches of the workplace health and safety legislations that contributed to the death of 54-year-old Debra Summers, in exchange for an Enforceable Undertaking (EU). This move had been flagged earlier noting that it was unusual to accept an EU when a workplace fatality had occurred.

SafeWorkSA’s Executive Director, Martyn Campbell, spoke exclusively with SafetyAtWorkBlog earlier this week to provide more context to the acceptance of the EU. He has spoken to the Summers family in the preparation of the EU and said that some of the request of the family have been incorporated. He also outlined the circumstances of Debra Summers’ death:

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