ACT WorkSafe commissioner Mark McCabe. Photo: Elesa Lee
Young electrical apprentices in the ACT are illegally being forced to work without appropriate supervision, and are even being sent out on their own on jobs that are being charged at the full commercial electrician's rate.
The ACT's Work Safety Commissioner will launch an audit and compliance campaign for electrical apprentices following two serious accidents in the ACT in recent months where apprentices received electric shocks while working without supervision. In both cases, the apprentices were on metal ladders at the time of the accidents, despite the ladders displaying warnings they were not to be used during electrical work.
The NSW-ACT assistant secretary of the Electrical Trades Union of Australia, Neville Betts, said he was both disgusted and concerned to hear increasing anecdotal evidence of electrical apprentices regularly being left unsupervised due to job demand pressures in the industry. ''Their lives are being put at risk for commercial gain.''
Mr Betts approached WorkSafe after a young female fourth-year apprentice received an electric shock and fell off a ladder in January on a worksite at the Aurora apartment complex on the Kingston foreshore.
In September, another fourth-year apprentice suffered serious head injuries after receiving an electric shock and falling five metres from a ladder while completing maintenance at the old bus depot in Phillip. He is believed to be still recovering from the accident and subsequent surgeries.
ACT Work Safety Commissioner Mark McCabe said both accidents were quite serious.
''While our investigations are still under way, consideration will be given as to whether there is a case for both of these matters to be put to the Director of Public Prosecutions for prosecution.''
Mr Betts said it was a requirement of their training contract that electrical apprenticeships be supervised by a licensed electrician during any work with live wires during their four-year apprenticeship.
''In both these recent accidents, these young people were not being supervised,'' he said.
''And we are regularly being informed that apprentices are being sent out on jobs which charge full rates but there is not only no supervision by a tradesman, their work is not being checked off by a tradesman once they complete it.''
Mr McCabe said his office would mount an education campaign around supervision requirements before beginning an audit and enforcement campaign in the next few weeks.
WorkSafe is also preparing to roll out an industry-wide ''Speak Up
About Safety'' campaign, encouraging workers to bring safety matters to the attention of bosses and encouraging bosses to let them speak freely about their concerns.
''We need to talk with both employers and unions about what the supervision standards are and what should be expected in terms of apprentices so there is no confusion,'' Mr McCabe said. ''Then we need to make sure those standards are being followed. We have heard numerous allegations from reliable sources that apprentices are being sent on jobs to work alone, or just with another apprentice - that is unacceptable and we are very lucky we haven't had a more serious consequence than we've had.''
Mr Betts said WorkSafe intervention was required, as was a crackdown by the ACT government on using tradespeople who flouted safety regulations.
''As an apprentice, these young people have no power. They're not going to turn around to their boss and say they won't do the job. But they are being used outside their role for financial advantage.''
The ACT government is expected to respond formally to the findings of an independent inquiry into work safety, Getting Home Safely, by the end of the month. The inquiry was called in response to the ACT losing four workers in construction accidents in 2011 and last year and the fact that serious construction accidents in the ACT happen at almost twice the national average.
If the two accidents involving electric shocks are referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for action by WorkSafe, they may become test cases for severe new penalties which came into effect last year under.
The laws allow a company to be fined up to $3 million for a serious breach, and a negligent company director to be fined up to $600,000 or jailed for five years.