Occupational health and safety regulation in Australia. Employers must join common cause with us in the union movement in ensuring that unsafe workplaces are by regulation unlawful workplaces too. Richard Marles, Assistant Secretary, ACTU.
“… during the entirety of World War I 60,000 Australians lost their lives …”
I recently read a book called “Gallipoli” by Les Carlyon. It tells a story which has become dear to the heart of our culture. You can see the signs of that everywhere. From the fact that in many suburbs there is a Lone Pine Street, to the whole spirit of ANZAC which is invoked at every opportunity, to the film “Gallipoli” which has become an icon in Australian film history.
Les Carlyon was right when he described Gallipoli as “our Homeric tail”.
Why Gallipoli is so culturally significant is hard to say. But a part of it has to be that it is the story which embodies Australia’s participation in the First World War. And as to Australia’s participation in the First World War there can be no doubting why that is so significant to this country’s history.
The loss of life amongst Australians in the Great War was breath taking. It was proportionately the most of any of the allies who fought in that conflict. I think I am right in saying that it was proportionately more than Britain has ever suffered in any of its conflicts. It is comparable to the loss of life suffered by Americans in the US Civil War – and to put that war in context more Americans died in the US Civil War than in all the other wars in which America has been involved put together.
That such a tragedy should have occurred so early on in our country’s history I guess it makes it understandable that this should be so deeply inbedded in our country’s psyche. There is not a town in Australia with more than two or three hundred people in it which doesn’t have a monument to the First World War. And so in turn it’s not surprising that our Homeric tale should come from this conflict.
For the record in the 8 months of the Gallipoli campaign more than 8,000 Australians lost their lives. Of course there was very significant loss of life amongst soldiers of other countries most notably Turkey. And during the entirety of World War I 60,000 Australians lost their lives and a further 156,000 were injured.
“It is estimated that between 40-60,000 people will lose their lives as a result of work related exposure to asbestos.”
You may think this is an odd way to start a speech about regulation of occupational health and safety. Indeed you might be thinking that this is an episode from “Yes Minister” where the guy has been given the wrong speech. So let’s talk about occupational health and safety.
3,000 Australians lose their lives as a result of their work every year. Indeed at this conference the ILO has put the figure at 7,000. By comparison to the road toll in the 12 months leading up to May of this year 1,693 people lost their lives on our roads.
In the 12 months to September 2000, 477,800 people were injured at work.
It is estimated that between 40-60,000 people will lose their lives as a result of work related exposure to asbestos.
These are completely staggering figures. I sometimes think that as we see these figures flash up on the screen it washes over us. For someone who has not been involved in the occupational health and safety world for long I found these figures to be absolutely shocking. Indeed, the only thing that appeared to me to be comparable was this country’s loss of life during the Great War.
But while the figures might be comparable to the Great War, the place that occupational health and safety holds in our country’s psyche is far from comparable with that held by the First World War. There are no monuments in all the small towns to people who have died as a result of work related exposure to asbestos. There is no movie directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson which highlights the tragedy that is this country’s occupational health and safety record.
Of course I understand that monuments and movies are not going to save peoples lives. But, they do speak to me a little about the priority, or rather the lack of it, that we as a people place on occupational health and safety.
I think that most people are unaware of these figures. I think that most people would be surprised that more people lose their lives as a result of their work than as a result of our roads.
Given the lack of priority that we put upon occupational health and safety it is therefore no surprise that this country has an appalling record by international standards in relation to our workplace health and safety.
So, whilst these surroundings are relaxed and comfortable we have no cause to be relaxed and comfortable about OH&S. OH&S is not a nice world in which we all get on and talk about how science and law applies to the workplace.
There is a relevance, in my view, to the way our country reacted to the loss of life in the First World War. In the aftermath of World War I Australia was stunned, we were shocked, we were appalled by this tremendous loss of life. The imprint of that reaction is the monuments which are in all the towns around our country.
When we think about occupational health and safety we should think about it in similar terms. For the situation is shocking, it is appalling, it is truly stunning.
And at the heart of our response to this situation has got to be further and better regulation.
“… sometimes occupational health and safety is the poorer cousin …”
I want to return to regulation in a moment. But before I do I want to take up the point that was made by Professor Per Langaa-Jensen when he referred to occupational health and safety as being in the side car in the Danish context. Given the comments I have made it seems to me this is very much the same in the Australian context.
I have personally experienced something of a revelation in relation to occupational health and safety. Mine is not a particularly long union career. I have been involved in the union movement for 10 years. But it surprises me that it was not until my tenth year, my fourth year as an officer of the ACTU, that I was exposed to this very important issue for workers and certainly for union members. Now for those who know me, you may think that is reflective of the narrow minded approach I have to life. And while that may be true I also think that it goes a bit further than this. Because I think that in the world of government, and in the world of employers, and yes in the world of unions too, sometimes occupational health and safety is the poorer cousin.
Everyone privately expresses to me the difficulty they have in getting OH&S issues onto the mainstream agenda.
The disjunction between occupational health and safety issues on the one hand and industrial issues on the other seems to me to be completely accepted by everyone, everyone that is except workers.
In all the survey’s of workers and union members OH&S consistently ranks as one of the four key issues in the workplace: job security, hours of work, wages, and OH&S. Often OH&S tops that list.
So why OH&S is so consistently pushed to one side is mystifying.
Occupational health and safety should be at the core of every single union enterprise bargaining claim that is ever made. I hope that in the not to distant future you will all start to see this occurring.
I even think that we, as unions, relate differently to employers about occupational health and safety. We relate about OH&S on the margins whereas we must start to place OH&S at the centre of our relationship.
In some ways we relate better about OH&S. Certainly we are less confrontational, and as we try to centre OH&S we don’t want to lose this. But nor do we want to consign occupational health and safety to the inertia of consensus.
Australia has an appalling record in relation to workplace health and safety. 3,000 people die every year. If we are going to change this situation we are going to have to make hard decisions. It is unimaginable to me that all of these decisions will be made by consensus. We must throw ourselves into this with all the energy that we have. But if on occasions that gives rise to conflict, then so be it. Conflict is what we must have in order to save workers lives. Indeed I might remind everyone that were it not for the conflict that was engaged in by the Maritime Union of Australia and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union in relation to the importation of asbestos then this would not now be about to be banned. And I also remind you that in banning that importation and having that conflict lives will be saved.
But in making occupational health and safety a more mainstream issue we need to do more than simply convince government, employers and unions to put a higher priority upon it.
We, in the OH&S world, must start to make OH&S easier to understand for those who are not OH&S specialists. We have got to stop using all the jargon that we do which makes OH&S such an inaccessible world for those who have not previously entered it. In using this jargon and in holding on to the security blanket of bureaucracy we do ourselves a disservice in mainstreaming OH&S. And in failing to mainstream OH&S we also do Australian workers a disservice by failing to ensure that OH&S is given the priority that it deserves.
I don’t have all the answers, indeed I don’t have many of the answers, as to how to break down the barrier between the industrial world and the OH&S world. But to me this barrier is wholly artificial. Take the issue of hours. It is at one an industrial issue, an issue of industrial justice, and at the same time it is an issue relating to health and safety.
Certainly, section 89A of the Workplace Relations Act 1996, which prevents OH&S issues being the subject of an industrial award, doesn’t help. But whatever the answers are, I for one am putting my hand up as being committed to breaking down this barrier.
“Employers must join common cause with us in the union movement in ensuring that unsafe workplaces are by regulation unlawful workplaces too.”
I said earlier that at the heart of our response to the workplace health and safety crisis in Australia is regulation.
Yesterday, Stephanie Mayman spoke far more eloquently than I could hope about this subject. And so in some senses I simply commend her comments to you.
We, in the union movement, recognise that exercises in developing abstract regulations are completely hopeless. Regulation must be well researched, well applied and relevant. We also understand that regulation alone is not going to solve the occupational health and safety problem in Australia. We need to educate workers and employers about the importance of occupational health and safety. Ultimately, we need to affect a culture change in the workplace.
But as Steph said yesterday regulation provides a pretty significant incentive to people to educate themselves about OH&S so that they comply with regulations. And ultimately what is lawful and what is not is at the very heart of culture.
Our response to the health and safety problem in Australia must be multifaceted, but a response without regulation is no response at all.
Now when employers hear about the prospect of more regulation they invariably react adversely to it saying that it needlessly ties up business in red tape. But can I say to you that the prevention of 3,000 deaths per year is not needless and making work safe is not red tape.
Employers must join common cause with us in the union movement in ensuring that unsafe workplaces are by regulation unlawful workplaces too.
“… we are prioritising symptoms …and at the same time ignoring causes …”
One of my concerns is the issues we are choosing to regulate. Because it seems to me that the priorities that we have made about regulation are missing half the story.
The national strategy states that the three priority hazards that we should be focusing upon are: musculoskeletal injuries; falls, slips and trips; and hitting and being hit by an object.
By and large these do not describe hazards; not at least in the sense of describing causes of injury, disease or accidents.
For example, if you take “hitting or being hit by an object” this is simply the end result of a whole lot of other causes. It is a symptom when the cause of why somebody is hit by an object maybe that they are tired or they are stressed.
This usefully describes an injury but it does not describe a cause. It is a highly relevant descriptor if we were a compensating authority. But it is a far less relevant descriptor for preventative authorities. And occupational health and safety is all about prevention; it is not about compensation.
So we need to think more in these terms. For at the moment it is as if we are a doctor who is simply interested in treating the symptoms. And to be sure doctors do treat symptoms and that is important. But if medicine was only interested in symptoms and never turned its mind to investigating causes then we would not know about cancer today. And so it seems to me that we are prioritising symptoms – “hitting or being hit by an object” – and at the same time ignoring causes such as fatigue and stress.
“… compensation data can hardly be determinative data for authorities which are interested in preventing workplace disease and injury.”
At this point I want to speak a little about the controversy that exists around the data that we use.
Data is important. Someone once said that if you want to solve a problem the first thing you need to do is measure it. Indeed, in my presentation today I started with a whole series of statistics.
The occupational health and safety world seems to be obsessed with national compensation data. Now this is good, regular, and very relevant data for compensating authorities. It is even relevant to preventative bodies. But compensation data can hardly be determinative data for authorities which are interested in preventing workplace disease and injury.
If regulation is to be best practiced then it must be based upon all the data available to us. And more than that we need to start searching for data about causes. As Dr Pascal proudly talked about the surveys he’s conducted at the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions it seemed to me that in this country we are poorly in need of this kind of research and information.
So evidently, there are, in my mind, other priorities that we need to regulate. I want to talk about three of these to give you an idea of them. And they are fatigue, stress, and bullying.
“[Australia is] the second longest working time country in the developed world.”
31% of full time employees work more than 48 hours per week. This makes us the second longest working time country in the developed world. Only workers in South Korea work longer hours than workers in Australia. And whereas working time in Korea is on the decline, in Australia it is on the increase. If we do not do something soon we will become the longest working time country in the OECD. Already, we are starting to be at the head of some of these tables. Australia has the greatest proportion of its workforce working in excess of 50 hours per week of any country in the OECD.
However you measure it, a key characteristic of Australia is that we are a long hours country. And as such we are a country full of fatigued workers.
Now you don’t have to believe me on all of this, for I have been quoting to you findings of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in the recent Working Hours Case.
There are very significant adverse health affects associated with long hours and fatigue. And again I am quoting from the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in the Working Hours Case. Studies have shown that long hours of work increases the rate of stress; the rate of heart disease; the rate of negative birth characteristics; and the rate of accidents.
An increase in accident rates is perhaps no surprise but it is important to understand how that works. When you are fatigued you are more likely to have an accident. But in addition to this the first bodily function that deteriorates when you are fatigued is cerebral function. So when you are fatigued you start engaging in riskier behaviour which compounds the rate at which accidents happen as you work longer and longer hours.
Long hours of work and fatigue have also been associated with an increase in the rate of unhealthy weight gain – an issue which is particularly dear to my heart.
At its worst fatigue and long hours of work are killing people. But this is a cause and not symptom. And so it does not obviously show up in compensation data.
Why? Because fatigue manifests itself in: “hitting or being hit by an object” – a fatigued driver, for example, in a car. A fatigued person trips over. A fatigued person engages in risky behaviour and lifts when they should not and suffers a musculoskeletal injury as a result.
But just because it is a cause does not mean that it can’t be regulated. Indeed, fatigue and hours of work is the subject of regulation by the National Road Transport Commission in terms of driving hours. Now why on earth would we simply limit this regulation to driving hours when there are thousands of fatigued workers across our country using very heavy equipment which is far more dangerous than a car. There are lots of fatigued workers in the construction industry – a long hours industry; or mining; or doctors in operating theatres.
Fatigue and long hours of work is the cancer in occupational health and safety that we are ignoring.
“People suicide because of stress.”
The 1995 AWIRS survey found that stress was the second most reported of all injuries. 26% of injuries were stress. But we know that stress is an under reported condition. The 1997 ACTU survey of more than 10,000 workers found that 26.5% of all respondents said that they had time off as a result of stress. But, of that group only 4% had claimed that time off through workers compensation.
In Europe recent data is consistent with this indicating that, for example, in the UK 30.5% of men and 36.5% of women said they have been affected by stress.
At this point let me again emphasise the importance of proper data. If only 4% of stress claims are being picked up through compensation claims then immediately you can see that the national compensation data is going to be completely under reporting this condition.
These are massive numbers. Again the effects of stress, like fatigue show up in the symptomatic types of hazards such as trips, slips and falls.
Where stress is claimed the average cost of the claim is $17,400. But this is only the start of the effects of stress.
At its worst stress is an utterly debilitating condition. People suicide because of stress.
And it is a condition which is on the rise. Modern workplaces are less secure, more intense, more precarious, and people are provided less training within them. All of these are factors which lead to stressful workplaces.
We are not serious about trying to deal with Australia’s workplace health and safety crisis if we do not deal with the issue of stress.
“… 2.5 and 5 million Australians will have experienced bullying at some point in their career. That means most of us.”
Again, bullying is a condition which is on the increase. Again, massive numbers of people are affected by bullying.
In Europe surveys have found that 9% of workers experience bullying in any 12 month period. Surveys in the United Kingdom, the US and Scandinavia have variously estimated that this figure may be as high as 38% in any 12 month period.
The Beyond Bullying Association in Australia estimates that in our country between 2.5 and 5 million Australians will have experienced bullying at some point in their career. That means most of us.
I know that in my career I have certainly been on the receiving end of bullying and most people I know have. The 2000 ACTU survey found that the effects of bullying included feeling stressed (and with that came all the stress related symptoms); feeling depressed; having sleep difficulties; and having stomach upsets.
Again like fatigue and stress, bullying is a cause which shows up in many of the symptomatic hazards which we give so much priority too.
It is a huge issue and we need to deal with it.
Overall, if we take fatigue, stress and bullying this is where we believe that the debate has to be at. These are the new issues which are the difficult issues. And in our view this is precisely what the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission should be focused upon. This is where we need national leadership. This is where we need proper research and some regulatory guidance so that we can help solve the problems.
“We are not going to save 3,000 workers’ lives without NOHSC.”
All of which brings me to my final comments and these relate to the role of the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission itself in Australia’s OH&S regulatory framework.
In this federation where the issue of OH&S is largely based in the states, NOHSC is critical.
Not being a jurisdiction, NOHSC is not hampered by all the day to day issues that jurisdictions need to deal with. It is free to consider all the issues around health and safety. It is free to try and plot the way forward.
NOHSC can flow best practice from one state to another. This is particularly valuable for the smaller, less resourced states.
NOHSC should be the centre for debate about these newer harder issues such as stress, fatigue and bullying.
NOHSC can ensure that traditional standards are kept up to date.
And NOHSC should be a centre for research.
But NOHSC has been hampered, because since 1996 there has been no political commitment by this Federal Government to NOHSC. It is therefore particularly cruel that NOHSC is being placed under the microscope of the Productivity Commission. It is a rather crude play to under resource the beast on the one hand and then put it under the microscope of the Productivity Commission on the other so that it can be criticised.
Well I can tell you that we are not going to deal with the occupational health and safety crisis in this country without NOHSC. We are not going to save 3,000 workers’ lives without NOHSC. We are not going to do this if we don’t have a centre for debate, a centre for leadership and a centre for research.
If we want best practice regulation for OH&S in this country then NOHSC must continue to exist. Indeed, more than that, if we want best practice OH&S regulation in this country then the Federal Government must start to give its political commitment to NOHSC.
Thank you for having me.
Richard Marles, Assistant Secretary, Australian Council of Trade Unions. National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Surfers Paradise. 22 July 2003