Jeff Lawrence: Unions step up plans for workers' safety

EVERY death has a shattering impact on the lives of those left behind, and the death of Tim Haynes, a 28-year old plasterer at East Maitland last week is another tragic reminder that too many lives are being lost at work.

Last year there were 150 work-related traumatic workplace deaths across Australia. But these official figures underestimate the true scale of the problem. When we include diseases contracted at, or related to, work there is an estimated 7000 deaths.

This is four times the annual national road toll.

Unions know that many deaths at work are preventable whether they are caused by a sudden traumatic accident or from disease.

Health and safety at work is core business for unions and we are stepping up our efforts to make sure the current plans to harmonise the nation's occupati onal health and safety laws mean that Australian workers get the best possible laws.

Unions support moves to harmonise health and safety laws, provided they keep and strengthen the legal safeguards that improve health and safety at work.

The Council of Australian Governments pledged to lift health and safety standards, not lower them.

But this has not happened. Earlier this week workplace relations ministers from the federal, state and territory governments agreed on recommendations that, if they become law, will significantly undermine protections for many workers.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect workers with the world's best workplace safety laws. We will not stand by while Australian workers are subjected to second-rate safety.

In NSW, one important standard will be lost if the recommendations go ahead as they stand. Since the 1940s unions have been able to prosecute for breaches of workplace health and safety law when regulatory authorities don't do so.

Union prosecutions have been used sparingly and responsibly and have clearly improved workplace health and safety in areas such as banking, schools and community services.

In recent years, the Finance Sector Union has launched five successful prosecutions against three of the major banks for failing to provide appropriate security in the event of an armed hold-up.

The union prosecutions prompted banks to install additional protection for their staff. These included anti-jump barriers, ATM bunkers and digital CCTV with live, back-to-base monitoring not just in NSW, but elsewhere too.

Union prosecutions have also resulted in improved safe ty for teachers in NSW public schools. Following two convictions and sizeable fines earlier this decade when teachers were victims of violent student behaviour, the state Department of Education has changed its policies on suspensions of violent students.

It is critical that the ability to prosecute goes beyond just regulatory authorities. There are other measures that are important too. Unions want to ensure that:

  • Workers and their representatives are fully consulted by employers about any issue that may affect their health and safety.
  • There is no reduction in the rights, powers and protection of health and safety representatives in our workplaces. 
  • Employers have an absolute duty of care to ensure workers' health and safety is protected. 
  • Employers having the burden of proof in OHS prosecutions to est ablish they did all they could to make work healthy and safe. 
  • There is a right to effective workplace representation on OHS.

  • In these tough times, workers need to know that unions can access workplaces if a health and safety breach is suspected and that workers who feel insecure about their jobs, feel comfortable raising health and safety issues with management.

    The role of unions in ensuring compliance with occupational health and safety laws is internationally recognised. No less an authority than the World Bank has noted that unions can step in when individual workers may find it too costly to obtain information on health and safety risks on their own, or want to avoid antagonising their employers by insisting that standards be respected.

    With the economy under pressure and belts being tightened, workplace health and safety must not be a casu alty of the drive to pursue a better bottom line.

    People are under pressure at work and are being asked to do more with less and and in this climate it's even more important to have strong laws so that lives are not put at risk.

    Article originally appeared in the Newcastle Herald 21.05.09