The Guardian • Issue #1986

Report shows deaths at work on the rise

On 28th October, Safe Work Australia released a damning report which shows that deaths at work have increased for the second year running. The rise bucks a trend that had been seen the previous ten years, where there was a continuous reduction in workplace deaths.

In 2020, 194 workers died at work. In 2021 to date that number is at 105 compared with just 109 in 2019. The report found that ninety-six per cent of fatalities were male and thirty-one per cent were following vehicle collisions. The deadliest industry was transport, postal, and warehousing work which reported fifty-one deaths in 2020 and thirty-six so far in 2021. This is followed by agriculture, fisheries, and construction.

This comes as the Morrison government voted against attempting to implement industrial manslaughter laws earlier this year. Since industrial relations is a matter that is increasingly legislated for by the commonwealth parliament – the Fair Work Commission and Ombudsman are both commonwealth bodies – there has been mounting pressure on the Morrison government to introduce industrial manslaughter as an offence under one of the federal workplace health and safety laws like the Work Health and Safety Act.

Such laws currently exist in Victoria, the ACT, the NT, and Queensland. In NSW, deaths at work may constitute manslaughter by “gross negligence or reckless conduct” but this is not a specific provision for industrial manslaughter. In Western Australia, a bill is currently being considered and is likely to pass into law. This follows a string of heat-related deaths in the WA mines. It proposes to introduce both civil and criminal penalties for industrial manslaughter. South Australia and Tasmania do not currently have industrial manslaughter laws.

It is galling that COVID case numbers are so widely reported while the 194 workers who have died this year do not get coverage. Once again, the Morrison government has shown that it cannot be relied on to take workers’ safety seriously.

Each year on 28th April, unionists and their supporters around the country pause to commemorate all those who have lost their lives at work. On this occasion, Workers’ Memorial Day is usually accompanied by speeches and updates on the ongoing campaigns for workplace health and safety. Behind the scenes, dedicated activists work year-round to fight the rising numbers. But for the rest of us, one day a year is not enough.

It is time workers took safety into their own hands. Workers around the country need to educate each other on their workplace health and safety rights and band together to stand up for those rights, to create a culture where unsafe working conditions are not accepted.

As ACTU Assistant Secretary Liam O’Brien stated in response to the Safe Work report:

“Every worker deserves to go to work in a safe environment and go home healthy at the end of the day. No worker should have to be fearful of losing their life when they leave for work. Bosses who cut corners that kill workers should face serious penalties and we must introduce industrial manslaughter laws.”

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