The Guardian July 14, 1999


Self-regulation of safety "unsafe"

by Rohan Gowland

A number of workplace fatalities in recent weeks has highlighted that there 
is a serious and growing problem in the area of workplace safety. Safety 
regulations and practices have been undermined over the last few years and 
replaced by self-regulation, with fatal consequences.

Last week in Victoria, construction workers and unions protested outside a 
"dangerous" site, the old Cadet shoe factory in North Fitzroy, claiming it 
was unsafe for workers. They were also protesting against the recent deaths 
of six construction workers in 16 days.

This brings the total number of "traumatic" workplace deaths in Victoria 
this year to 25, five more than at the same time last year.

Mark Towler, Occupational Health and Safety Officer with the Victorian 
Trades Hall Council, told The Guardian that the Cadet shoe factory 
site and the recent spate of deaths in the construction industry are not 
extraordinary occurrences. He said they were merely "the worst reflection 
of what's going on on a regular basis".

The union movement has been "deeply concerned for several years" that the 
changes to worksafety inspections would lead to more deaths in the 
workplace.

The removal of the Scaffolding Acts of Parliament in 1995 meant that 
scaffolding no longer had to be inspected on a weekly basis.

Then, in 1996, Victoria's workers' compensation system was overhauled. The 
specialist inspection service was eliminated and WorkCover was made 
responsible for doing the safety inspections as well as dealing with 
compensation matters.

Mr Towler said that the result has been that a pro-active inspection system 
has been turned into a reactive system that deals with accidents after they 
happen, rather than preventing them in the first place.

The loss of 50 inspectors, who were made redundant last year, is also a 
blow to WorkCover. Although, numerically, WorkCover has more inspectors 
now, having recruited young university graduates, it has lost the skills 
and experience of its veteran inspectors. It is possible that WorkCover is 
replacing its workforce to rid itself of the kind of criticism that 
compares how it operates today with "the way things used to be done".

Self-regulation is the new order of the day. The Longford gas explosion is 
one example of how this works in practice.

Mr Towler said a meeting was planned for Tuesday morning between unions, 
the Victorian Trades Hall Council, and employer representatives in the 
construction industry with the purpose of seeing some positive action being 
taken to ensure workplaces are safe.

A rally is also planned for Wednesday, July 14. Construction workers will 
march from the Trades Hall to Parliament House.

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