Federal Politics


Call for action on workplace safety

The government took the first steps on Monday to turn around Canberra's deplorable workplace safety record by boosting the number of inspectors, increasing the number of offences attracting on-the-spot fines and by setting a goal of reducing serious injury claims by 35 per cent by June 30, 2016.

The initiatives are among 28 recommendations in a report by former public service commissioner Lynelle Briggs and WorkSafe ACT Commissioner Mark McCabe about health and safety laws in the local construction industry. Though the government's detailed response to the report, released on Monday, will not be finalised until February, it has already agreed to set aside $2 million in the May budget to enable the recruitment of 12 additional WorkSafe inspectors.

The government had little choice but to act promptly. Four workplace deaths since December last year, three of them in the construction industry, is a reprehensible statistic, the more so given it has coincided with a number of serious injuries and a big increase in safety breaches.

The report found the ACT's serious injury rate for the industry to be 31 per cent higher than the national average, and the long-term injury rate performance to be 50 per cent worse than most other jurisdictions, and double the national average. The reasons for this poor record, the authors said, were ''many and varied'', but chief among them was a paucity of effective work health and safety training (exacerbated by a machismo construction culture), tight commercial deadlines, a focus on paperwork rather than managing workplace risks and hazards, and the failure of government agencies to work closely with industry to improve standards.

In keeping with its view that a ''culture of complacency'' pervades most, if not all aspects of the industry, the report takes a correspondingly wide remedial approach. Managers and peak industry bodies such as the Master Builders Association and the Housing Industry Association ''have to take the lead in driving the cultural change and reducing the rate of serious injuries''. Middle managers, leading hands, foremen and workers themselves ''must recognise the fundamental importance of valuing and authorising discussion about safety''. Government must do more than simply regulate and police; it must be proactive in driving cultural change. The unions, too, have an important role to play, as ''safety cannot be achieved through an adversarial approach''. The report even sees a role for the ACT community in reporting more to government authorities about bad health and safety practices.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, which has been vocal and insistent on the need for a greater safety focus on building sites, is likely to bridle at suggestions that its interest in such matters has often been driven by ''other industrial motivations''. Nonetheless, it will be gratified at the report's adoption of measures for which it has long advocated - including stiffer penalties for delinquent contractors, and the requirement that the government ''use its purchasing power to ensure through its tendering process that only contractors with good health and safety records and the capacity to complete a project as safely as possible are allocated government work''. The recommendation that fine defaulters be publicly named and shamed is also likely to be enthusiastically embraced by the unions.

The CFMEU's mixed feelings about this report are likely to be shared by the MBA and the HIA. Though the report's authors have heeded warnings about the dangers of more regulation, they are unequivocal about the need for the peak bodies to be more involved in the development of safety and the management of safety.

The problems underlying Canberra's lamentable construction safety record are complex, but in many respects they boil down to one thing: the ineffectual regulation and control of the sector by government. The government's pledge to give WorkSafe ACT more money (and greater powers) to combat the culture of complacency in the sector is therefore to be welcomed - as is the timetable for concrete improvements. There is good reason to believe, too, that, come February, Workplace Safety Minister Simon Corbell will announce the acceptance of most if not all of the Briggs report's recommendations. Concerted action by all parties will be necessary to reduce the death and injury toll on ACT construction sites, but the government must provide guidance and be prepared to do the heavy lifting.