Jeff Lawrence: Less than best is not acceptable when it comes to workplace health and safety

In the time it will take you to read this article, another Australian will have been seriously injured at work and will need to make a workers’ compensation claim.

From crane drivers to nurses, workplace health and safety is an issue that affects every worker.  Yet, most Australians are unaware that their health and safety laws are being radically reformed.  

Our governments are working to harmonise all the existing health and safety laws into one national system for the states, territories and Commonwealth.

Employers have campaigned hard for a national system that they say will reduce red tape and be easier and more affordable to administer.  These are important goals, as long as they do not come at the cost of safety standards of working Australians and their families.   

Many employers are diligent in providing safe workplaces, but there are some who would like to see their obligations weakened.

This is not a situation where the government should tell you that because employers and unions are both unhappy with their proposed new laws they’ve struck the balance right.

Australian workers deserve the best in health and safety, not a compromise with employer lobby groups.  

Every year more than 350,000 Australians are hurt or become ill at work — seriously enough to take a day or more off work.

Tragically it is estimated that there are as many as 8,000 Australians each year who are killed in our workplaces or who die from work-related disease.  

This is a loss of life is considerably higher than the national road toll – and just as preventable.   

Death is not the only cost of poor health and safety protections.  Illness and serious injury are the ongoing, often hidden costs.  

As a nation, we have the opportunity to significantly improve safety standards – why shouldn’t Australia have the world’s best?  

Injuries at work cost the Australian economy nearly $60 billion a year, or 5.9 per cent of GDP.  You would think it is in the interest of businesses too that we have the highest possible standards of rights and protections for employees.

That more should be done is certainly the overwhelming view of the Australian public.

Recent union research shows that almost eight out of ten people agreed employers should do more to protect health and safety, even if it means more costs or red tape for their business.

An effective safety system must focus on prevention and, if that fails, prosecution. That dual focus has played out in our state systems for some time.  Now we have the opportunity to take the best of all the current systems to form the new national laws.  

What international and local examples prove is that prevention is best achieved through well-trained health and safety representatives supported by their union.  Strong rights for health and safety representatives are fundamental.  

It is also essential that unions continue to play a strong role in ensuring safety standards at work — and public agrees with this view.

Eight out of ten Australians believe that under the proposed new laws workers must continue to have the ability to urgently call in their union representative if there is a safety issue at their workplace.

Ultimately, an effective safety regime requires employers to take responsibility for the safety at their workplace.  Employers should listen to the concerns of employees and act on them.  They need to be proactive and eliminate hazards before, not after, an injury occurs.

However, if someone is injured at work, they should have the right under health and safety laws to take court action against the employer.  Most agree this is a simple principle of justice, but it also has the added benefit of deterrence.

Since the 1940s in NSW workers and their unions have had the ability to prosecute employers in cases where regulators have been unable or unwilling to take action.

These court actions have been rare, but in the past 15 years unions have achieved a 100% success rate.  They have also resulted in significant improvements to workplace health and safety for many other workers.

For example, in 2002 when the Finance Sector Union took up the case of banks failing to provide appropriate security in the case of armed hold ups, improvements were made across the industry – and there has been less armed hold ups as a result.

With another workers’ compensation form about to be filled out, now is not the time to be complacent. Unions want to see our occupational health and safety laws improved.  

A new national system gives workers and their families an opportunity to have the best laws from around our country.  

In memory of all of the workers who died last year, how could we accept anything less?

This article first appeared online on the National Times site on 24 September 2009.