SA Safe Work Week local focus on a national outrage
by Bob Briton Workplace safety is a hot topic at the moment in the upper echelons of business and government. It would appear that concern is growing at the huge, negative effect that poor workplace safety practices are having on the corporate bottom line. The worry is intensified by the knowledge that many more chickens — in this case the consequences of decades of lengthening hours of work, staff cuts, cost-cutting and good ol' capitalist speed-up — are still coming home to roost. Last week Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott gave the hurry up to his state counterparts to reach agreement on the terms of reference for a Productivity Commission inquiry into workers' compensation and occupational health and safety. No doubt Abbott's agenda in all this will be to contain costs for the bosses and further shift the burden onto the backs of workers. The extent of the problems preoccupying the Minister and business leaders was the focus of Safe Work Week, which was the initiative of the South Australian Government's Workcover Corporation. Held in Adelaide over the week November 11-15, the event included the holding of more than 100 workshops dealing with workplace health and safety. The tone for the event was set by Paul Kells — a visiting former Canadian Broadcasting Commission news director and businessman — whose son Sean died as a result of a chemical fire in 1994. The company responsible for his son's death had violated half a dozen safety regulations and evaded registering with Canada's workers' compensation authority. For the past eight years Mr Kells has been winning support for the Safe Community Program being promoted by the World Health Organisation. Locally, Workcover itself concedes that between 450 and 600 South Australians have died in the past seven years as a result of injuries suffered in the workplace. The official figure is 149. The same understated figures admit to 330,000 cases of workplace related injury and illness in the same July 1995 to July 2002 period. The detail of this bleak overall picture is very revealing. Darryl Turner is manager of Self Insurers of South Australia, which represents employers who manage their own workers' compensation claims. He reported that in 2001-02 there were more than 1000 claims lodged as a result of violent incidents at work in SA — an increase of seven percent on the previous year. In 1999, fully 23 percent of stress claims resulted from traumatic violent incidents as workplaces got steadily leaner and meaner. Dr Angela Baker of the University of SA's Centre for Sleep Research drew attention to a trend toward 12-hour shifts and the problem of measuring the effects of fatigue. Unlike alcohol (which still accounts for 16 percent of fatal accidents in the country at an economic cost of $2 billion) there is no biological test for fatigue. The economic and human cost of this trend can only be guessed at. Depression is also a prevalent feature of the modern workplace. Professor Ian Hickie presented figures from the National Mental Health Survey. The astounding statistics are that depression affects more than 800,000 Australians every year and accounts for half a million full working days lost every month The bill for this comes to $600 million before adding the cost of the frequently resulting substance abuse. Again, as pressures mount in workplaces, there is less time to observe and intervene in the interests of workers. Casual workers are simply thrown onto their own resources. These contributions — and the others that made up the Safe Work Week events — gave many disturbing insights into the workplace in present day Australia. They are a virtual catalogue of the consequences of the "economic rationalist" grab-back of conditions that has been going for the past 20-25 years. It would be a mistake, though, to think that Tony Abbott's of this world will respond in a humane way to all these issues simply because they have been pointed out so starkly. He is looking at how to get the insurance companies and employers off the hook as the decline in health and safety in the workplace takes its toll. It will be up to the same trade union and progressive political forces that won the conditions now under attack to win them back and press on to higher standards. Shorter hours, suitable staffing levels, the consistent application of rigorous safety standards and other conditions necessary for a healthy and fulfilling working life will only come with the widening and intensification of the struggles currently taking place in workplaces across the country.