Federal Politics


Safety costs - get used to it

WorkSafe ACT's decision to halt a concrete pour in Mitchell on the same day that the government flagged its intention to accept all 28 of the recommendations of the ''Getting Home Safely'' report was undoubtedly coincidental. But there was a certain synchronicity in the two occurrences. Concrete pours require careful logistical planning, and interrupting them has serious financial consequences for builders. In taking the drastic and relatively unusual step of halting a pour at a commercial warehouse construction site on Monday, Worksafe ACT has given clear voice to the ACT government's determination to improve workplace safety in the construction industry.

That tough attitude is as welcome as it is necessary. In 2011, the year before the government asked former public service commissioner and Medicare chief executive Lynelle Briggs and ACT WorkSafe Commissioner Mark McCabe to conduct an inquiry into compliance with and application of work health and safety laws in the construction industry, there were four deaths on Canberra construction sites and a high number of other serious safety incidents. As the report's executive summary noted, ''Each year, one in every 40 workers can expect to have an injury which results in them being off work for at least a week. On average, we can expect that every working day, one construction worker will sustain such an injury somewhere in Canberra. It is a distressing safety record for a small jurisdiction''.

The reasons for this poor record, according to the report, are ''many and varied''. They include an acceptance in the industry of serious injuries, a belief that little can be done to improve poor safety records (despite gains made in other jurisdictions) a lack of effective training in work health and safety laws, and a disregard for managing risks and hazards in the workplace born of a view that safety is just another added cost in a highly competitive industry. It noted too that the ACT was seen as a ''soft penalty regime'' policed by an under-resourced watchdog, a fact that undoubtedly contributed to this cavalier industry attitude.

In its initial response to the report in November, the government committed to eight of the report's 28 recommendations. It immediately introduced on-the-spot fines for safety breaches and boosted WorkSafe ACT's funding to enable it to hire 12 new safety inspectors. It also pledged to appoint an industrial magistrate to ''develop knowledge and experience of work health and safety matters and the impact of deterrents on the behaviour of duty holders''.

In declaring yesterday that the government had accepted the remaining recommendations, Workplace Safety Minister Simon Corbell made an important point: employers and unions must play their parts in reducing safety risks. It should be self-evident of course that a co-operative approach is the best way to make construction work sites safer, but according to Mr Corbell some in the industry have ''sought to downplay the extent and significance of the problems''. That this is still the case suggests cultural indifference to work health and safety matters may be more entrenched than was commonly thought.

The costs associated with enhanced education and safety training loom as another impediment to change. Employers and business are likely to tolerate an increase in contributions to the Building and Construction Training Fund, but many will baulk at Mr Corbell's proposal to extend cost recovery on occupational health and safety enforcement by instituting a levy on insurers - a cost that is sure to be passed on to builders. However, those who assert that a levy would be an unfair impost on employers and likely to inhibit job creation should not lose sight of the fact that this is common practice in the other states.

Increased penalties and a regulatory climate in which employers believe they stand a better than even chance of being apprehended for safety violations will be crucial to achieving cultural change. As a key driver of construction in the ACT, the government also has an important role to play by ensuring that tenders are awarded to companies that have a demonstrated record in safety awareness and management, not to those delivering the cheapest price.

While acknowledging that the profit margins in construction can be uncomfortably thin on occasion, there is no avoiding the fact that safety costs time and money. But if Canberra's tarnished workplace safety reputation is to be rehabilitated - as it must - then those costs cannot be shirked.