ACTU Assistant Secretary Bill Mansfield’s presentation at the Futuresafe Conference 2000 on the unions perspective of health and safety in Australia.

Futuresafe 2000


Chair, thank you for the invitation to attend this conference and present a union perspective on health and safety in Australia.


According to ILO statistics, accidents and illness at work result in the deaths of more than than one million workers worldwide each year. That’s around three thousand per day. The estimates are growing by 30,000 per year. In addition, many millions of workers contract occupational diseases because of workplace pollution and other unsafe conditions.


Bringing those statistics back to Australia’s record, we should note that each year since 1992, Worksafe Australia statistics show that there has been an average of at least 410 compensated traumatic fatalities which occurred as a consequence of work related activity and an average of at least 96 fatalities which occurred on a journey to or from work.


Once we include work related diseases such as asbestosis, cancer and occupational asthma, the total number of work related fatalities is estimated to be at least 2,900 per year.


Since 1992, there has also been an average of around 150,000 workers’ compensation cases each year which resulted in a disability resulting in more than 5 days absence.


I say ‘as least’ because we know that the Worksafe National Data Set – based on workers’ compensation cases, underestimates the true incidence of work related deaths, injury and illness in Australia.


A recent study conducted by the University of Sydney and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in which GP’s reported the work related causes of their patients’ symptom, indicated that around half work-related presentations to doctors were not paid for by workers compensation, and that stress-related anxiety conditions were a significant proportion of work-related disorders for which generally no compensation was paid.


To make the figures more meaningful, it is fair to say that in Australia each year, at least 9 people per week are killed either at work, or travelling to or from work. The figure for total work related fatalities – 2,900 per year, equates to over 55 deaths per week. The corresponding figure for road deaths is around 33 per week.

New Risks

In addition to the unacceptable prevalence of well known OHS hazards, the increasing demand 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.


Recent statistics and reports show that with factors such as greater management pressures on individual worker – along with increasing insecurity – coping with frequent changes in technology and work organisation; increasing workloads; longer working hours; rising job insecurity; and increased casualisation; the number of workers reporting that they suffer from symptoms of stress at work is increasing sharply. This issue is emerging not only in Australia, but also in the UK, Europe, Scandinavia and North America.


The World Health Organisation has recently released – The Solid Facts – The Social Determinants of Health, which lists stress at work and stress in life generally, as two of ten key determinants of poor health. One of its authors – Professor Michael Marmot, is currently in Australia talking to the health community and the OHS community about the studies behind the report.


Thus far unions do not see evidence that governments or employers in Australia are taking the issue of stress seriously.


The reaction from employer and government representatives has been largely to adopt the ostrich approach – put your head in the sand and hope the problem will go away.


This ‘do nothing’ response to the emerging problem of stress at work occurs too often in Australia. Poor management practices, particularly lack of communication and consultation has been identified in studies both in Australia and overseas, as a key cause of stress at work.


We need more than denial or trivialisation of the issue as an answer. The risk we run at present is that through governments and employers not fully acknowledging the extent of the problem, Australia will have a growing epidemic of stress-related illness and injuries before any effective strategies to respond to the problem are developed.


Having noted a specific issue in the area of stress at work, how do unions propose to contribute to an overall improvement of safety in the workplace?


Essentially we believe better performance can be achieved through:



  • Ensuring that senior management support and establish the means by which safe workplaces are achieved.




  • putting in place a partnership between unions and management at industry and workplace levels to identify areas of risk and eliminate them




  • ensuring that the standards required to achieve safety are clearly defined and understood by management and workers




  • undertaking an adequately funded research program to respond to emerging areas of risk, particularly in the areas of chemicals and stress




  • carrying out an adequate inspection and enforcement program to indentify the ‘cowboys’ in management ranks who show a gross disregard for safety standards. The penalties for sub-standard performance should better reflect the outcome of management negligence and/or inaction.



Partnerships at workplace and industry level are essential to identify areas of risk and how they can be eliminated. In a recent ILO publication on OHSA the need to focus on factors such as poor workplace relations and bad communications at enterprise level as a key factor in improving OH&S performance. At the industry level Queensland has initiated Industry Safety Consultative Groups made up of employers and union reps which come together on a regular basis to examine the evidence of OH&S and detect areas where performance needs to improve – the group also propose solutions to the problems which are revealed. In the time they have. The reports from Queensland indicate that they are making s significant contribution to reducing the accident rate.


Secondly we nee to communicate better about practical ways to reduce injuries and accidents in the workplace, what the required standards are in areas such as manual handling, noise, asbestos, working at height and the use of chemicals. Too often the material we produce is badly written, too bureaucratic and poorly presented. Ideally we should have a national handbook available to all workplaces that need it which can do the job of properly informing people on how to achieve a safe workplace.


Thirdly we need a national research program to respond to emerging areas of risk and provide us with the information needed to respond. Recent examples include the emerging stress problem, the introduction of synthetic mineral fibres and the effects of microwave radiation. In the area of OH&S we spend a pitiful amount on research at the national level.


Fourthly we need an adequate inspection and enforcement program. When we consider the road toll in Victoria around twenty years ago we killed around 1100 people a year and badly injured thousands of others. Nearly every fatality was reported in the press. Led by the government the community decided to make a major assault on the extent of the deaths and injury. What did we do?



  • We improved the roads
  • We improved or cars – seat belts, air bags, better making systems
  • We introduced better surveillance with speed cameras and radars
  • We innovated with penalties –the point system
  • We cracked down on the cowboy drivers who drank and drove
  • We changed the entrance from acceptance to abhorence with powerful advertising



We need to do the same in the OH&S area. A well funded inspection program. Decent penalties fail for gross negligence leading to serious injury or death. We have done it with the road carnage – we can do it in the workplace.


Workplace stress costs Australia up to $1.2 billion a year. And unless the problem is tackled, the nation will become poorer and sicker, VicHealth syas. About 50 percent of workers reported an increase in workplace stress during the previous 12 months, the 1995 Australian Workplace Industrial Relations survey shows.


Moodie says these are issues to do with the health of the organisation and must be addressed at the level of structural change, not individual behaviour change;



In surveys of union members undertaken by unions to determine what are their key concerns safety at work is always in the top three issues. Wage levels and job security are normally the other two key issues of concern.


The union approach to safety is firstly to emphasise the importance of a prevention strategy and to make the workplace safe. We believe safety is best achieved by a process which includes:



  • Leadership from the top
  • A partnership between unions and management to improve performance
  • Establishing enforceable standards to apply to areas of risk
  • Adequate training for employees
  • Carrying out an action inspection and enforcement program



These are the approaches which we believe can work best in achieving safer workplaces.


The most important factor in producing better outcomes in a particular company is senior management leadership to establish a commitment from employees at all levels that safety is to be regarded as a priority issue. There have been numerous examples of companies which have poor safety records turning around their performance through a higher level of commitment by management.


The motivation for good management of OHS is often an ethical commitment to ensuring that the health of individual employees is not put at risk in the workplace. However beyond that factor there is also both the negative legal consequences of poor performance and the positive economic advantages that can accrue from better performance.


Employers, Directors, Managers and Supervisors all have clear responsibilities to workers under Occupational Health and Safety Legislation. In NSW by way of example Directors and all those involved in management of a company are required to demonstrate that they hae used all due diligence to avoid contravening the provisions of the OH&S Act – this requires proof that they have taken every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect the health, safety and welfare of all workers. The penalties for breaches of the Act can be severe – in NSW the maximum penalty for a corporation at the first offences is over $500,000.


Better management is not motivated by the threat of penalties but rather by other factors such as the recognition that better OHS performance improves the overall financial results of the company. In companies where there is a poor OHS record it flows over and has a negative impact on staff morale generally. Absenteeism, poor quality and lack of customer service are often outcomes. Where staff can see that management has a genuine commitment to improved OHS standards they will respond accordingly.


Whilst acknowledging that leadership and management commitment is a key issue for achieving acceptable standards of OHS it has to be complemented by the other factors that I mentioned earlier:



  • Partnership with unions representing employees
  • Meeting the standards set to prevent risk
  • Proper training for employees.


Hours and Stress

Following up on the 1997 stress campaign our 1999 National Health and Safety Campaign focussed on working time and job security.


The 1997 stress campaign reported that:



  • 38% reported long hours
  • 25% reported insufficient rest breaks
  • 25% reported increased workloads as the most stressful factor at work.



The follow-up study undertaken last year found that of the many responses from health and safety representatives throughout the country:



  • 44% work over 40 hours
  • 26% work over 45 hours
  • 12% work over 60 hours



with half reporting overtime in the past week, much of it unpaid.


In terms of the effect that long hours is having on health, over half reported that their health is being affected due to the length of the working week;



  • 76% reported stress
  • 55% reported headaches
  • 51% reported depression
  • 25% report that excessive hours are adding to the risk of accidents.



In terms of remuneration for the extra time worked 65% report that they sometimes work beyond their normal hours without being paid for it.


In terms of Shift Work less than a quarter of those working shifts expressed a preference for shift work. Over 40% reported shifts of over eight hours with a similar figure reporting shifts beyond the hours.


Fatigue is becoming a significant factor in many workplaces according tot he survey with over 70% of responses stating that workers in the company complain of fatigue. We know quite clearly that fatigue reduces alertness, vigilance and performance. Along with excessive hours it exposes workers to other health and safety hazards such as chemicals, noise, and OOS risks along with general disruption to family and social life.


The outcome of the 1997 and 1999 surveys have led the ACTU to give further consideration to a campaign around working hours to achieve a better balance between work and family life and reduce stress in the workplace.


In the past the task of management was essentially to manage the physical environment, guard machines, provide ergonomic furniture and so forth. Increasingly the risks to health are related to the overall workload and the pressures that are placed upon individuals through longer hours, less job security and related factors. Modern management needs to adjust to the change so that if in future they face questions of whether they acted with due diligence to provide a safe workplace they can demonstrate that their actions were adequate to prevent risks to the health of their workers.


In today’s increasingly competitive environment, many organisations are pushing their people to continually achieve increases in productivity. Most often these productivity improvements are brought about by requiring less people to do and work, to spend longer hours at work, and increasingly, to work longer spans without adequate rest breaks.


Unions are not opposed to profitable enterprises or to high levels of work performance, as long as these outcomes are achieved within a framework of fairness and attention to health and safety.


However, this should also include high performance in health, safety and working conditions. The reality is that, despite that rhetoric of governments, employers and OHS authorities, this is still too often not the case.


In their efforts to establish high performance workplaces, we expect employers to adopt management approached in which:



  • Hours of work and workloads are organised in a consultative way to ensure that requirements are not unrealistic or unfair;
  • Information is shared and communicated with staff;
  • Employees are treated with respect and trust;
  • Training for career development in secure jobs, and in OHS is offered to all employees; and
  • There is a focus on preventing occupational injuries and disease.



In addition to deaths and injury in the workplace, caused by dangerous machinery, falls, noise, chemicals, and other agents, the union movement is becoming increasingly alarmed at the anxiety and emotional trauma now being experienced by Australian workers on a daily basis, as job security disappears, and work itself becomes more and more stressful.


Stress at work is a growing world wide problem. In the United States, the Director of the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety has forecast that stress will be among the most important problems of the 1990s and beyond. It has been estimated that 54% of absences from work in the US are related to stress.


Britain’s Chief Medical Officer estimated that three out of ten people were suffering from stress at work. A 1996 British Trade Union Congress survey found that, of 7,000 workplace health and safety representatives, 68% reported stress as the most serious OHS issues in their workplace.


A recent survey by the IK Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union (MSF) found that 81% reported stress as a serious problem in their workplaces, 72% said it was worse than a year before, and 74% said it was worse than five years before. The 1995 Australian Industrial Relations Survey, which was conducted in 2000 workplaces with over 20 employees, included questions on OHS. The survey involved interviews with senior management and union delegates. AWIRS found that 26% of employees across Australian workplaces had reported stress at work. This was the second most reported illness/injury after sprains and strains (43%).


The industries, which reported the highest incidence of stress, were:



  • Finance and insurance – 47%
  • Education – 44%
  • Property and business services – 37%
  • Government administration – 29%



What is happening in Australian workplaces that is causing so much stress at work?


At the ACTU Conference on stress at work in April 1998, keynote speaker Professor Malcolm Rimmer outlined the four profound changes occurring in workplace in the 1990s:



  • Changes in work time;
  • Changes in job security;
  • Changes in task demands; and
  • Changes in union presence and management sophistication.



What these changes really mean are:



  • full timers working longer hours, while there is also a growth in part time, casual, and other non-standard hours;
  • enterprise bargaining advantages the well organised, ie, unionised workplaces, and stagnant or reducing conditions and protection for those workers in weak bargaining positions; and
  • forced redundancies and increasing staff turnover



Professor Rimmer also pointed to a phenomenon he called the devolution revolution, which is accompanying the changes outlined above. By this he mans the trend to press responsibility down the line, whilst at the same time stripping resources and/or reducing staff.


Devolution results in greater job complexity, responsibility and demands on employees [and increasingly on contractors]. At the same time, the resources and time with which people are provided, are more and more limited. This growing mismatch between the demands placed upon employees, and their capacity to meet them is giving rise to increasing stress at work.


As part of it 1997 OHS campaign, the ACTU conducted a national survey on stress at work. Little did we realise the outpouring of emotion which would be released. We were flooded with over 12,000 responses. This issue had clearly tapped a nerve amongst employees, and in the community generally. The ACTU survey found that the following conditions were reported most often as causing stress at work:


  • too much work
  • not enough staff
  • no time to rest
  • not enough hours in the day
  • job security
  • constant change
  • lack of consultation and communication with management