For a predominantly white-collar town like Canberra to be regarded as having the most dangerous construction sites in Australia will strike many as impossible. Yet in the past year there have been four construction workplace-related deaths in the territory, a number of serious injuries and a big increase in safety breaches. In that time, the ACT accounted for less than 1 per cent of the building and construction activity that occurred nationally but almost 12 per cent of the fatalities - putting it well behind the pack in workplace safety.
Statistics paint an incomplete picture of the dangers that lurk in the workplace, however. Today's front-page account of Jayson Bush's brush with death on a Canberra construction site last month is a chilling reminder of how things can quickly and unexpectedly go wrong in workplaces where safety considerations are supposedly paramount and which are subject to oversight by ACT WorkSafe inspectors. Mr Bush lay critically injured at the bottom of an air-conditioning vent for close to two hours before help arrived, and though his recovery is progressing well, he is likely to bear psychological scars for the rest of his life.
There has been no shortage of theorising about possible underlying reasons for the spike in workplace accidents since December 2011. Dean Hall, the ACT secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, claims a number of factors have contributed, chief among them a gradual shift to industry self-regulation in safety. He also cites a poor culture of training and supervision, a lack of investment in safety and accident prevention, and inappropriate training and licensing for operators of heavy equipment. The peak construction industry body, the Master Builders Association, believes that complacency in what has been a relatively safe industry is partly to blame.
Building activity in Canberra, particularly the construction of new offices and apartment complexes, has been near record levels in recent years, and it is probably no coincidence that accident rates have risen during this time. Changes in the nature of construction - and the way business is done in the sector - have also undoubtedly contributed. Civil construction is now highly mechanised, which in itself poses additional hazards to workers, and the requirement for that equipment to be maintained in good working order can potentially be compromised by tight deadlines, competition and the boom-bust nature of building.
Then there have been changes in employment practices. Gone are the days when a subcontractor and his employees performed every element of every job. Nowadays, the industry workforce largely comprises self-employed contractors, and there has been an increase in the use of casual labour. It is hardly surprising that the casualisation of the workforce might have contributed to an erosion of safety standards. Indeed, the CFMEU has expressed concerns that the worker injured on a construction worksite at Duntroon on Thursday was employed by a labour-hire company and that he may not have been properly qualified for the job for which he was engaged.
It might be assumed that WorkSafe ACT, the industry watchdog, was wise to such cultural changes, and that it had intensified its scrutiny of the industry as a result. But in fact the authority's complement of qualified inspectors, the people who supervise construction site and the safety conditions of nearly 15,000 workers, has declined from 65 a decade ago to 34 today. The CFMEU believes this is insufficient to police problem worksites, make sure employers are complying with safety laws, promote education and prepare prosecution cases.
Last July, in response to the rash of fatal and near-fatal accidents since December 2011, Attorney-General Simon Corbell initiated an inquiry into construction practices headed by former Public Service Commissioner Lynelle Briggs, with the help of WorkSafe ACT Commissioner Mark McCabe. The findings of that wide-ranging inquiry are due to be handed to the government next week.
As the Quinlan tax inquiry reminds us, Labor has occasionally dragged its heel when digesting contentious reports. In this case, however, the families of workmen killed or injured on construction sites and other interested parties like the CFMEU and the MBA have every right to insist the findings of the report be released for public discussion without undue delay.
To its credit, Labor pledged during the recent election campaign to establish an industrial magistrates court staffed by specialist magistrates. It needs to take a similarly proactive stance with next week's report, even if that entails extra funding for WorkSafe and increased regulation. The MBA is on record as saying it opposes further regulation, but such changes may be unavoidable if Canberra is to rehabilitate its tarnished workplace safety reputation. And while workers, too, have a duty to ensure their own safety, employers and government have a greater duty to make sure that everyone who sets off for work each day comes home safe and well.