Who dies, where?


By Melanie Sjoberg

I have a longstanding argument with one of my brothers about the incidence of workplace injury. He counters my emphasis on the outrageous statistics of workplace deaths with the notion that if it was really as bad as I claim, then surely it would make the front page of the newspaper.

National Occupational Health and Safety Week coincided with a South Australian Workcover promotion to provide the opportunity for me to succeed in the debate, but also to underline the tragedy of workers and their families who suffer as a result of poor OHS practices.

The damaged lives, the arduous recuperation and the facts and figures being presented are signally neglected in the establishment news.

The marketing and communications manager of Workcover, Paul Roberts, has refused to allow the issue to be sidelined. He is disseminating a string of facts and figures designed to sharpen awareness.

He points out in the promotional material, 'Few Australians would know our biggest killer is the workplace and that they have more chance of being injured at work than on our roads".

The Workcover document estimates that 2900 Australians die each year from workplace-related accidents and illness, in comparison to 2367 suicides and 2029 road accidents.

According to Workcover Corporation, there are more than 50,000 workplace reports of accident or injury each year, in comparison with 8000 injuries from road accidents.

Now ask yourself how many headline screamers you have read about the need to curb this disgraceful killer and maimer called the workplace. How does this compare with the gruesome images of the horrors of road accidents or the necessity of action to prevent youth suicide?

Neither of the latter are to be belittled, but it should raise a question about the editorial priorities of some media.

Surely workplace safety is a killer that can be remedied by awareness, adequate training, attention to hazards and appropriate regulation and monitoring. Have you ever experienced a work situation where an accident has nearly happened because of undue pressure, time constraints or lack of knowledge?

Workcover is distributing information to commuters, and conducting workshops around the state on hazards and claims management.

One item receiving much less publicity is the fact that the state government has distributed a discussion paper on the future of OHS regulation in SA.

The paper calls for a policy shift to a "deemed to comply" approach, which the SA United Trades and Labour Council has described, in a paper prepared by researcher Kevin Purse, as "ill founded and ill considered".

It is based on the policy position that employers should be "encouraged to do the right thing" and that the departmental role should emphasise employer education.

According to the UTLC report, this continues a trend away from enforcement adopted by the Department of Industrial Affairs as part of an ideological commitment to reduced government.

The UTLC report claims that this could put SA workers at greater risk, rather than improving OHS performance.

Research by the UTLC indicates that the major problem is that the current system is not effectively administered. Most seriously, there is a lack of information and resources available to assist employers in meeting their OHS responsibilities.

The UTLC supports an increase in enforcement and general promotion of OHS.

The UTLC report cites sprains and strains as the most common injuries, followed by fractures and musculoskeletal diseases. The associated costs of replacement machinery and plant, the recruiting and training of replacement staff and investigation exacerbate the problems.

The UTLC report likens the issue to a critical but neglected public health matter.

Recommendations of the UTLC include greater enforcement of the act, along with a maximum penalty of $500,000 for breaches, as well as the capacity for on the spot fines and public announcements where a company is convicted of a criminal offence.

The UTLC is also calling for funding for an increase in the number of OHS inspectors and a high profile media campaign about the importance of OHS.

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