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.