The Guardian November 20, 2002


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.

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