Of all the unions in the Australian Union Movement it is the building industry unions which take OH&S the most seriously, argues ACTU assistant secretary Richard Marles.
It is an understatement to say that the construction industry in this country over the last few years has been a highly politically charged environment.
In a politically charged environment barricades are erected, ears stop listening, words get twisted, and it becomes almost impossible for one side to communicate with the other. And then issues very important issues like occupational health and safety get caught up in a political storm which tends to make things worse rather than better.
From the union movement point of view, and not coming from the building industry unions but standing here representing them today, I can tell you that of all the unions in the Australian Union Movement it is the building industry unions which take OH&S the most seriously. It is the building industry unions for whom OH&S is a bread and butter issue. It is the building industry unions who we turn to for leadership around OH&S and who we turn to when there are difficult OH&S problems requiring solutions. Because for the building industry unions occupational health and safety is a day to day struggle of life and death for their members. It matters to them greatly. And they desperately want to see health and safety improved in the construction industry.
I think politics has got in the way of the sincerity of that message being properly heard.
This is why the last two days have been so significant. Because this conference has been about breaking down barriers. All of us sitting under one roof government, employers and unions talking about OH&S and how we can make that better in the Australian construction industry. And if we do nothing other than leave here with a shared commitment to continue that communication into the future then this has been a giant leap forward.
There have been a number of suggestions about where we should go from here. I certainly think there is a role for the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission to facilitate this communication in the future.
But whatever we do, the most important thing is that we dont regard these two days as having been an end in themselves, but rather we see them as a new birth of communication and shared understandings amongst us all about occupational health and safety in the construction industry.
Closing Address to the Construction Industry Conference 2004
National Occupational Health and Safety Commission
Australian Council of Trade Unions
29 June 2004