Employers must join common cause with us in the union movement in ensuring that unsafe workplaces are by regulation unlawful workplaces too says ACTU Assistant Secretary Richard Marles.
If I sound a bit croaky today please forgive me because in the last twelve hours I have learned two things. First, if you have never ever smoked a cigar in your life don’t try and do it for the first time the night before you are about to give a speech. And second, under no circumstances whatsoever do you engage in a karaoke competition with the Finance Sector Union.
“… in 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 I think it is fair to say has become dear to the heart of our culture. You can see the signs of that everywhere. From the many suburbs which have in them Lone Pine Streets; to the whole spirit of ANZAC which is invoked on almost every occasion; and even the film “Gallipoli” which has become and icon of our cinema history.
Why Gallipoli is so culturally significant is hard to say. But a part of that must be that it is the story which embodies Australia’s participation in the First World War. And it is very clear why the First World War is so significant to our history.
The loss of Australian life in World War I was completely unbelievable. It was proportionately the most of any of the allies who fought in that conflict. It was proportionately more than Britain has ever suffered in her entire history.
That such a tragedy happened so early on in our history makes it understandable that World War I is so deeply etched on our national culture and our national psyche. You cannot go into a town of more than two or three hundred people in this country without finding in it a monument to the First World War.
For the record in the eight month campaign at Gallipoli more than 8,000 Australian’s lost their lives. Of course many other people from many other countries lost their lives as well, most notably from Turkey. And in the entirety of World War I 60,000 Australians lost their lives and a further 156,000 were injured.
You may think that’s an odd way to start a speech about occupational health and safety. Indeed, you may even think 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.
“… between 40 and 60,000 workers will die as a result of work related exposure to asbestos.”
3,000 Australians die every year as a result of their work. Indeed the ILO puts that figure at 7,000 for Australia. If you compare that to the road toll, in the 12 months to May of this year 1,693 people lost their lives on our roads. In the 12 months to September of 2000, 477,800 people were injured at work. It is estimated that between 40 and 60,000 workers will die as a result of work related exposure to asbestos.
All this begs the question as to whether or not we simply accept these figures as the cost of doing business in a modern industrialised economy. Yet for me the answer to that question is that we absolutely cannot. Because these are staggering figures. They represent a human tragedy on an enormous scale.
When I first heard these figures the only thing that was comparable in my mind was the loss of Australian lives in World War I. But while the figures may be comparable the place that occupational health and safety holds in our national culture and our national psyche is far from comparable.
There are no monuments in all those country 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 appalling record in relation to occupational health and safety.
And while I understand that movies and monuments will not stop people from dying, their absence speaks to me a little about the priority or rather the lack of it that we as a society place upon occupational health and safety.
I think most Australians would be unaware of these figures. I think most Australians would be surprised to know that more people die as a result of their work than as a result of our roads.
Given the lack of priority that we as a country place upon occupational health and safety there can be no surprise that by international standards our OH&S record is appalling.
And so while I am not saying that anybody in this room is relaxed, certainly the union movement has no cause to be relaxed about workplace health and safety. This is not the time to go out and get a coffee because OH&S is on the agenda. OH&S is not a nice area where scientific unionists gather around the table in agreement with bosses about what to do in the workplace.
When we think about workplace health and safety we should be thinking about it in similar terms to the way this country reacted in the aftermath of World War I. Because the situation is shocking; it is appalling; it is truly stunning.
“Everyone in the OH&S world privately expresses … the difficulty in getting health and safety issues on the mainstream agenda.”
But if we are going to increase the priority that our country places upon occupational health and safety we need first to mainstream OH&S in our own work.
For me I have had something of a personal revelation about this. Mine is not a particularly long union career – I’ve been involved for 10 years. But it was not until my tenth year in the union movement, my fourth as an officer of the ACTU that I was first exposed to this critical area to our membership. Now those of you who know me may say that that says a lot about the narrow minded way in which I go about my life and certainly that may be true. But I think it goes a bit beyond this because at times OH&S is the poorer cousin in our work.
Everyone in the OH&S world privately expresses to me the difficulty in getting health and safety issues on the mainstream agenda. Indeed the disjunction between health and safety issues on the one hand and industrial issues on the other seems to be so completely accepted by everyone – everyone that is except our own membership.
In all the surveys of union members they consistently rank health and safety as one of the top four issues affecting them in the workplace: job security, hours of work, wages, and occupational health and safety. Often it tops that list.
So why health and safety is so consistently pushed to one side to me is mystifying. It should be at the core of every enterprise bargaining claim that we make.
I even think that we relate to employers differently about health and safety. We relate to them about it on the margins whereas health and safety should be at the centre of our relationship. In some ways we relate to them better. Certainly, we relate to them in a less confrontational way, and we don’t want to lose this in centring health and safety in our relationship.
But nor do we want to consign occupational health and safety to the inertia of consensus.
We have in Australia an appalling occupational health and safety record. 3,000 people die every year. If we are going to save those lives hard decisions are going to have to be made. And it is unimaginable to me that we will make all of those decisions by consensus with employers. We need to throw ourselves into this with all the energy we have. But if at times that gives rise to conflict then so be it. Conflict is what we must have.
We would not be banning the importation of asbestos into this country from the end of this year but for the conflict that was engaged in by the Maritime Union of Australia and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. And I can tell you that that conflict will save people’s lives.
But mainstreaming occupational health and safety is more than simply convincing the leaders of our movement to place a higher priority upon it. Those of us in the health and safety community must make OH&S easier for others to understand. We have got to get rid of all the jargon that we so often use. Because health and safety is not about jargon it is about people’s lives. In using jargon and holding on to the security blanket of bureaucracy we do ourselves an enormous disservice in mainstreaming OH&S. And in failing to mainstream it we do Australian workers an enormous disservice in failing to give health and safety the priority it deserves.
I don’t have all the answers, I don’t even have many of them as to how we break down the barrier between health and safety issues and industrial issues. But to me that barrier is wholly artificial. If you take the issue of hours of work it is at one an issue of industrial justice while at the same time being a major occupational health and safety concern.
However we are to break down that barrier, I for one am committed to doing so.
“OH&S represents a golden organising opportunity which … is going largely untapped …”
In acknowledging the significance that health and safety holds in our members lives we must see the organising opportunity that it presents.
In most states there is a fantastic network of occupational health and safety representatives. These are passionate people. They are very relevant people to the workers around them. And they are almost always union people.
These people can recruit to the union movement around the issue of occupational health and safety.
But to do so they need to be empowered with all the rights that we can possibly give them. For example, occupational health and safety reps should be empowered to choose the training that they wish. And unions need to be in a position to provide that training in an excellent way. Occupational health and safety representatives should also be empowered with the right to issue provisional improvement notices in every jurisdiction.
I might add all of these are state issues. Given the appropriate priority and with Labor governments in place we should be able to achieve all this.
But most importantly for us in the union movement it is essential that we integrate occupational health and safety representatives into our union organising campaigns.
OH&S represents a golden organising opportunity which I believe is going largely untapped and the policy before you today is all about trying to tap it.
“The great causes of occupational health and safety hazards in this country: fatigue, stress, and workplace bullying go almost completely unregulated.”
Finally we need to give some consideration to the priorities that we pursue within the OH&S area. Because at the moment OH&S regulation in Australia is largely wrong.
You see governments and regulators in Australia are a bit like a doctor who is only treating the symptom of shortness of breath while at the same time completely failing to identify the cancer which is causing that symptom.
There are, for example, a myriad of standards and codes out there which are aimed at preventing workers from tripping over. That is all good stuff. But there is barely a standard in existence which is aimed at preventing workers from becoming fatigued. And yet the most obvious reason why a worker has tripped over is that because when that worker tripped over they were fatigued at the time.
The great causes of occupational health and safety hazards in this country: fatigue, stress, and workplace bullying go almost completely unregulated. And in this we are a country mile behind the practice in Europe.
The policy before you today aims to refocus this agenda.
“… we need to take a fresh look at occupational health and safety.”
We need to take a fresh look at occupational health and safety. We need to take a fresh look at the priority that we place upon it. We need to take a fresh look at the organising opportunity that it represents. And we need to take a fresh look at the issues within OH&S that we pursue.
The policy that you will be considering today is all about refreshing, renewing, and revitalising the Australian union movement’s work on occupational health and safety.
Richard Marles, Assistant Secretary, ACTU. ACTU Congress 2003. Melbourne Convention Centre Melbourne, 21 August 2003.