Stealthy attacks on workers' health and safety

August 17, 2007

According to a survey conducted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) 15 months ago, eight Australians are killed every week on the job and a further 44 die due to work related illnesses and diseases. This is one-third higher than the number of people who die on the nation's roads. More than 15 serious injuries occur on the job every hour.

These figures should alarm the federal government. They warrant a national campaign similar in scale to that aimed at cutting the road toll. Instead, the Howard regime's response will not only allow the slaughter to continue, it will make it worse.

In an effort to bypass state occupational health and safety legislation, the Coalition government is actively encouraging employers to sign up to Comcare, a national occupational health and safety scheme, while at the same time acquiescing to employer peak body demands to gut the federal scheme of "overly generous" provisions for workers.

To encourage employers into Comcare, which was established by the Labor government in 1991, licensing for the national scheme has been extended to all previously Commonwealth-owned instrumentalities, such as Telstra, the National Bank and Pacific National (covering the railways). As well, licences for Comcare can now be gained for multi-state companies that compete with these former instrumentalities.

Optus has signed up to Comcare, along with transport company Linfox, construction giant John Holland and Toll, which now owns Patrick Stevedores. Medibank Private and Border Express have also applied to join.

The enticement of employers into Comcare is removing many employees' choice of workers' compensation schemes, while making massive savings for companies that switch to the federal scheme. The growth in Comcare will also reduce the states' financial pool for workers' compensation payouts. As one comment circulated in Comcare stated: "Stephen Sasse reports that the John Holland companies are very happy with the move to the Commonwealth jurisdiction. It has not only saved between $8 million and $10 million a year because they no longer pay premiums to the State and Territory regulators, it has also resulted in significant administrative efficiencies and consistency of practice nationally."

Comcare was created to provide Commonwealth public servants with workers' compensation and powers to act on breaches in the industry. Since the last federal election, however, the government has stealthily introduced amendments to Comcare that have compromised health and safety, and workers' compensation provisions.

In parallel with the Work Choices laws, one of the first targets has been to drive unions out of being a party to providing adequate protection for the work force. Union officials are no longer guaranteed right of entry to work sites on health and safety matters, nor do they have the right to represent members; all references to unions have been removed from the federal legislation.

Given the threat of fines and the docking of pay under the Work Choices laws, there is increasing reluctance among workers to take immediate action on health and safety issues, and employers have repeatedly shown their willingness to use the laws to punish such action.

Despite heavy industry companies now moving into Comcare, there have been no changes in the provisions to reflect the different needs Comcare must now meet. For example, the rarity of claims by public servants for loss of limbs is reflected in the low compensation provisions for such injuries under Comcare — $66,000 for the loss of a thumb and forefinger compared to much higher amounts under state compensation, such as $114,000 under NSW state compensation law.

Where the Commonwealth laws do offer better protection, such as providing for up to 45 weeks' compensation on full pay, business lobby groups are calling for severe reductions in these provisions. For example, the Australian Industry Group is advocating 12 weeks on full pay instead of the 45 currently provided for.

Apart from stripping back workers' compensation entitlements, Comcare has shown itself to be woefully inadequate in enforcing the federal Occupational Health and Safety Act. A comparison of Comcare's record with that of WorkSafe Victoria, made by ACTU occupational health and safety officer Steve Mullins, found that Comcare would have to increase its interventions by more than 2000% and increase the number of improvement notices issued by more 10,000% to match WorkSafe Victoria's record.

Compared to the states, Comcare has only a small number of dedicated inspectors (despite a doubling of numbers in recent months). Of the more than 1000 state inspectors, who have the ability to enforce health and safety laws, Western Australia has around 100, yet Comcare has less than 10 operating out of its South Australian and WA offices.

The Howard government is also driven by the employers' agendas in relation to rights, roles, training and representation of occupational health and safety delegates in the workplace. Big business wants the rights of these representatives — who are elected by the work force — deregulated so that they are less able to enforce health and safety laws.

A reduction in the horrendous number of deaths and injuries in the workplace can only be achieved if all workers have the power to pursue health and safety issues on the job. Employer self-regulation, a lack of serious penalties and the exclusion of meaningful representation of the work force removes this power and allows occupational health and safety to be marginalised by big businesses in their pursuit of profits.

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