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ALAN AUSTIN: Another year of disastrous construction worker deaths recorded

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Data indicates that more construction workers die under Coalition governments (image via YouTube)

The latest data shows worsening outcomes for worker safety in the construction sector under the Morrison Government, reports Alan Austin.

IT SEEMS CLEAR that preventable deaths in the construction sector are higher under Coalition governments. Unions and others claiming this have strong evidence to support them.

Data released for 2020 shows a substantial increase in fatalities relative to the volume of construction activity, for the second year running.

Construction deaths 2005-20 E.jpg

The bar graph above shows workplace deaths per 100 billion dollars worth of construction activity from 2005 until 2020.

Interpreting the data

Safe Work Australia tracks fatalities in all sectors. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) records engineering construction activity. The chain volume measures (CVM) have eliminated the effects of price and hence reflect construction volumes.

Before 2005, construction deaths were high and considered inevitable. By the end of the Howard period, unions and others had succeeded in getting the fatality rate below 60 per $100 billion of construction activity.

After Labor gained office in 2007, new regulations and better safety education reduced this dramatically; below 45 in 2008, below 35 by 2011, below 20 in 2012 and down to 13.9 in 2013.

This was commendable progress, though the 21 workers killed that year were still 21 too many.

That trend was reversed immediately after the Coalition came to office in 2013 with loud proclamations that regulations fettering corporations would be scrapped. Deaths surged dramatically in 2014 – up from 21 to 32 – despite activity contracting by nearly 11%.

Though, worse was to come. In 2015 and 2016, activity collapsed further but deaths rose.

The next two years saw fatalities decline substantially, down to 30 in 2017 and 24 in 2018. But in 2019, deaths increased to 26, despite less activity, more than doubling the fatality rate over Labor's in 2013.

In 2020, activity slipped further while the toll rose again. The death rate in 2020 exceeded 30 per $100 billion of activity, for only the second time in nine years.

The benchmark

So what death rate is inevitable? Is there a benchmark above which drastic action must be taken, such as strengthening regulations, imposing criminal sanctions or holding government accountable? Those are hard questions, because no one wants to consider any death as acceptable.

Nevertheless, construction is inherently dangerous with high accident rates worldwide. In the United States, 20% of 2019 worker deaths were in construction, despite those workers comprising 6% of the workforce. 

In Australia last year, 16% of workplace fatalities were in construction, with the sector employing 9.2% of the workforce. 

Death rates in the last two Labor years and the first two Coalition years were well below 30 for every $100 billion of activity. If we average those four years, we get 21.5, which we can round up to 22.

Thus, it is arguable that deaths above 22 per $100 billion activity should be deemed unacceptable. This is shown in the dotted green line in the graph.

Ministerial responsibility

The Industrial Relations Minister for the last two disastrous years has been Christian Porter, who was trying simultaneously to be the Attorney-General, but failing at that also.

Porter was recently dumped from both portfolios following allegations of historical rape. His failures on workplace health and safety suggest he should be banished from the Ministry.

The same might apply for Michaelia Cash, who held the position for those three dismal years 2015 to 2018 and has now replaced Porter.

This is not a harsh judgment. The Coalition from 2009 until recently condemned Labor for the deaths of four construction workers during the rollout of the extensive insulation program in 2009 and 2010. 

If we accept the benchmark of 22 deaths per $100 billion of activity, we see Labor was below this in its last two years, whereas the Coalition has been above it in all seven years. The actual numbers of fatalities in excess of the benchmark over that period comes to 47.

If Coalition leaders have accused Labor ministers of industrial manslaughter over those four deaths – which they did – then the community can justifiably condemn the Coalition for those 47 preventable deaths.

Tragically for Australian workers and their families, there is no sign that this Government is even aware of this crisis, let alone responding. 

Alan Austin’s defamation matter is nearly over. You can read the latest update here and contribute to the crowd-funding campaign HEREAlan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.

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