ACTU President, Jennie George on why the high and increasing incidence of workplace death, injury and ill health continue in Australia.


I am pleased to speak to you today on the subject of Is It The OHS Systems Or The Work? I feel this is a particularly important question at a time when there is great upheaval in the workforce – leading to new OHS problems while the old ones persist, and while there is a growing trend – in our view, to promote and over-rely on OHS management systems, in the absence of better legislation, regulation and enforcement.


Every week in Australia, an average of nine people are killed at work. An estimated 2,000 others die each year, as a result of work related injuries or disease. This is higher than the national road toll. At least 170,000 people are injured at work each year.


Just as in the case with deaths and serious injuries on the roads, the lives of those killed, injured or made sick by work and the lives of their workmates, families and friends can be devastated forever.


Why does this unacceptably high, and – it could be argued, increasing incidence of workplace death, injury and ill health in continue in Australia?


I believe it is not either the systems or the work, but is a combination of the failure of ‘systems’ put in place at government, industry and enterprise levels, and the work itself – especially the way work is done, in today’s ‘competitive’ and deregulated work environment.

A National OHS System

Governments have a clear responsibility to ensure that citizens are not killed, maimed or made sick by their work. In order to fulfill this responsibility, governments must be actively involved in preventing occupational injury and disease an ongoing way at a number of levels.


Governments must set appropriate standards, enact legislation and regulations, and ensure those laws and regulations are enforced. There must be adequate penalties, including imprisonment where gross negligence by an employer has resulted in death and/or serious injury to workers. Such penalties would be expected by the community in any other circumstances.


In NSW and the Northern Territory, on the spot fines have been shown to be effective in the case of less severe breaches of OHS laws, or where there is only a minor potential risk to health and safety.


Governments must promote and fund adequate and appropriate research into new and existing OHS problems – both in terms of discovering the nature and extent of the problems, and in finding solutions to them.


Governments must ensure that the whole community is aware and informed of OHS problems and their solutions, and of their rights and responsibilities with regard to health and safety at work.


All of these are essential components of an effective national OHS ‘system’, and require commitment to adequate and ongoing funding and resources if there is to be a significant reduction in the level of work-related death, injury and diseases in this country.


Unfortunately, funds and resources for OHS in Australia are not adequate and have even been reduced at both the national and state and territory level. If the same cuts were applied to road safety, there would be a public outcry.


The response of the current federal government has been:



  • in 1996 to slash the funding of the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, and downgrade its role in research;
  • to discourage the development of new national OHS standards; and
  • to remove OHS provisions from awards.



Where the National Commission has developed national standards and codes of practice in the past, state and territory governments have often been inconsistent in adopting, implementing and enforcing them. [eg. hazardous substances still not adopted in vic]. This results in unequal protection for workers in different states and territories.


Meanwhile, trade unions continue to hear of and see serious health and safety breaches in workplaces across the country on a daily basis – unsafe chemical storage and use, excessive noise, poor ventilation and lighting, unrelieved repetitive tasks, unsafe machinery and equipment, dangerous work sites and working conditions, serious near misses unreported to the authorities, and harassment and bullying of employees. The list goes on.


In place of a strong commitment to OHS at government level, the current response is to push the problem to the enterprise level. The idea is the same as that being applied to industrial relations that employers and employees can sort the problems out themselves.


This is amounts to an abrogation of the role and responsibility of government. It can be difficult for employers, and even more difficult for employees to deal effectively with health and safety at the workplace level, without the support of a strong and comprehensive national framework or OHS ‘system’ as I have described.

OHS Management Systems

In this deregulatory climate, many people in industry and enterprises are looking to OHS management systems to deal with OHS issues. There is a plethora of management systems in workplaces across the country, but in many cases, there is little control or consistency regarding their implementation and/or auditing.


A good OHS management system may result in good OHS outcomes. However, it is dangerous for anyone to assume that just because an enterprise has an OHS Management System in place, things are being done safely. What might look good on paper, may not be working ‘on the ground’, where it really matters.


In some circles, there seems to be an attitude that where there is a management system in place, then all is well with the world – no need to worry – it’ll be alright. What we know is that this is a wrong and dangerous attitude, which has resulted in workplace deaths and injury.


The Esso gas plant at Longford in Victoria had in place extensive paper systems, which have been described as best practice in OHS management. Despite the ‘system’, the explosion and fire at Longford in September last year resulted in two dead, eight injured, and many more traumatised.


Make no mistake, this was a preventable incident, which the paper system failed to prevent.


It appears that the lead up to the Longford experience was not unlike other tragic and preventable incidents, [such as at Moura] – a history of faults and the failure to report, investigate and fix them, coupled with increasing pressures on production and maintenance levels. This potentially explosive situation is likely to exist in many more workplaces, where there are similar pressures on the ‘system’.


Nor does the existence of an OHS management system in an enterprise necessarily denote compliance with the law.


While OHS management systems may not be designed as compliance instruments, they are often used as de facto compliance by enterprises, some of which will have poor safety records.


Standards Association of Australia (Standards Australia) has been developing a ‘generic’ standard for OHS Management Systems against which, it is planned, other standards may be measured – a benchmark so to speak. However, there are significant problems with the proposed standard, including its potential to be treated by enterprises as defacto compliance with legal OHS requirements.


The ACTU, through the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, has raised a number of specific concerns about the current Standards Australia draft OHS Management Standard including:



  • that the objectives must be more focussed on eliminating or reducing hazards or risks to health and safety;
  • the need to clarify the connection between OHS Management Systems and legal obligations, particularly with regard to contractors; and
  • the need for clear accountability of senior management; and



Of particular concern to unions, is the weakness of the draft standard in the areas of:



  • providing for the participation of employees and/or their representatives in OHS arrangements; and
  • the requirement for and recognition of OHS competencies.



[We consider that OHS competencies – including those of auditors of management systems, should be developed jointly by NOHSC and the Australian National Training Authority].


Repeated studies have shown that formal involvement of workers and/or their representatives in health and safety at work, including appropriate and ongoing training leads to better outcomes.


Unfortunately, this is not a popular message with some governments and employers at the moment, but it is one which unions must keep raising and acting upon at government, industry and enterprise levels.


Unions, together with governments, employers and the National Commission, must ensure that OHS management systems – if and when they may be used, reflect the essential features I have outlined, and do not take the place of good health and safety practice on the shop floor.

The Work

Workplace incidents which result in death or traumatic injury continue to be a blight on our community, destroying the lives of workers, their families, friends and workmates.


In addition to the unacceptable prevalence of well known OHS hazards the increasing demands in today’s workplaces are giving rise to new hazards, such as stress and burnout. These hazards are still not being fully acknowledged or addressed by decision makers.


In today’s increasingly competetive environment, many organisations are pushing their people to continually achieve increases in productivity. Most often these so called productivity improvements are brought about by requiring less people to do more work, and to spend longer hours at work.

Did You Know?

On average, Australian employees have been working more than 40 hours a week since the mid 1980’s. In fact, more than 50% of Australian workers regularly work more than 40 hours, and a third regularly work more than 49 hours per week.


The number of Australian employees working 60 hours or more has increased from 3% in 1978 to 7% in 1996; and


Over 28% of Australian managers, professionals, para-professionals, sales workers, trades people, labourers, and plant and machine operators work overtime – over 60% is UNPAID overtime.

Employers Push Their Workers

In August last year, Drake International released figures from a survey of over 3,500 Australian businesses, in which up to 85% agreed that their workplaces were stressful.


According to Drake, stress appears to be rampant across the full spectrum of industry – with issues such as time constraints, massive workloads, long hours, budgetary constraints, uncertainty and job insecurity causing the stress in most organisations.


However, a disappointingly small number of firms are changing their work environments and practices to prevent these conditions in their workplaces.


These results vindicate what the ACTU and unions have been saying about the health and safety hazards of stress and work overload.


More and more evidence is emerging that this way of working is resulting in significant health and safety problems. There are large numbers of study’s claiming that excessive workloads, surveillance at work, and difficulties balancing work and family commitments have direct effects on the health of workers, and may also exacerbate the effects of other OHS problems. [eg. manual handling].


Those in management positions, who have a legal duty of care and responsibility to provide safe and healthy workplaces, should be examining their actions and expectations of their employees to see whether they are causing stress and other OHS problems in their workplaces.


The ACTU – through its National OHS Campaigns and OHS surveys over the last two years has found that today’s workplace is increasingly characterised by:



  • Working longer hours with difficult and unpredictable rosters
  • Pressure to work overtime (often unpaid)
  • Less rest breaks, days off and holidays
  • Faster work pace, more pressure at work
  • Bonus systems and attendance bonuses
  • Increased, excessive performance monitoring
  • Extra often inappropriate tasks on top of ‘core’ workload – doing more than one job
  • Continually taking work home at night and on days off
  • Lack of support or ‘back up’ at work



These working conditions are of growing concern to thousands of workers across the country, who feel they have lost any control of their working lives, and that their lives outside work are also adversely affected.


It is essential that there is wider public debate about the effects that increased workplace demands are having on the health and safety of Australian working people.


These issues will be a central of upcoming campaigns by the ACTU and unions to improve the lives of working Australians around issues of working time.

Speaking Up

A situation exists in workplaces where people are increasingly reluctant to speak up about OHS issues. This can be the case in workplaces where there are OHS systems in place, but due to lack of action by management regarding reported OHS problems, workers become silent. It could be an unspoken but well understood ‘rule ‘ that to speak up is to risk harassment or even job loss. Of course, this is nothing new, but there are indications from our surveys that it is worsening.


We now know that at least that one in four people take time off because of stress at work, but few are brave enough to name stress or work overload as the reason, let alone to claim workers’ compensation for their stress injury. Many have no choice but to soldier on, despite the impacts on their health.


There can be no effective OHS system where workers feel they had best be silent about the OHS problems around them. Governments, employers, and unions must all take action about what amounts to injustice at work.

What Can Be Done?

Earlier I mentioned that more people are killed at work in Australia each year than are killed on the roads. Many people are not aware of this, and would be shocked if they knew the extent of needless workplace accidents and illness, which destroy the lives of Australian workers and their families every day of the week.


As terrible as the road toll is – there were 1,764 deaths on Australian roads in 1997, it is not as bad as it was. Ten years ago – in 1987, there were 2,772 deaths, in 1982 – 3,252 deaths, and in 1977 – 20 years ago – 3,578 people were killed on Australian roads.


How has this dramatic reduction in road deaths – over 50% reduction – been brought about?


The answer is, through a long term commitment (over 20 years, and continuing), to a combination of measures, including:



  • research into the main causes of road accidents; – safer design of roads and vehicles; – public awareness campaigns around the dangers of speed, fatigue and alcohol; followed by – legislation, accompanied by hefty penalties, regarding speed limits, compulsory wearing of seat belts, blood alcohol levels, etc.



There now exists a strong chance that if you are speeding or drink driving, you will be caught and incur the penalty.


Unfortunately, due to lack of resources for worksite inspection and enforcement, there is not a strong chance that negligent employers and unsafe unhealthy workplaces will be discovered.


Too many of Australia’s workplaces are characterised by non-existent prevention measures, defective equipment and dangerous practices. Unions are becoming alarmed at the continuation of ‘old’ OHS hazards and the rising incidence of ‘new’ OHS hazards such as stress and work overload.


The national OHS system is failing Australian workers, who have a higher chance of being killed or injured at work than on the roads. Inadequate government action, and – all too often – impunity for negligence, mean those with the duty of care – employers, are often under no pressure to exercise it.


There must be ongoing commitment from the commonwealth and the states and territories, in terms of funds and resources, to the prevention of workplace death, injury and disease. Australia needs a national OHS system which contains the essential components of research, information and education, legislation, inspection, enforcement and appropriate penalties.


In addition, governments must provide resources and assistance at the workplace level, to ensure that employers and workers have the wherewithal to deal effectively with OHS problems before tragic incidents occur, and before people are made sick by their work and/or working conditions.


ACTU – ACTU President, Jennie George

Australian Workers Union Occupational Health and Safety Conference, Sydney