The Albanese Government is seriously stepping up efforts to reduce avoidable workplace fatalities, reports Alan Austin.
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AFTER EIGHT YEARS of Australian workers being killed at an average rate of almost 200 per year during the tenure of Coalition governments, Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke has said enough is enough.
To quote him directly:
“So far this year, 91 workers have been fatally injured in the workplace. That’s 91 too many. People go to work to give themselves a life. That work should never take away a life.”
Criminalising workplace negligence
Under the proposed legislation, corporations will cop greatly increased fines while business managers will face a maximum penalty of 25 years imprisonment.
The new laws will increase by a factor of five the monetary penalties for "category one offences", which apply when a health and safety duty is breached recklessly or criminally negligently. Fines rise from $3 million to $15 million.
The new laws, which come into effect next July, follow legislation passed in February that changed the Commonwealth’s work health and safety laws to include negligence as a fault element, lowering the bar for conviction. This means both reckless and grossly negligent employers can now face the most serious consequences.
The new laws prohibit using insurance to cover financial penalties incurred for workplace safety breaches, ensuring the fines act as an effective deterrent rather than allowing worker deaths to continue as just another operational cost.
Background of Coalition criminal neglect
When the Rudd Labor Government took over from the hapless Howard Administration at the end of 2007, the average workplace fatalities for the previous four years had been a disturbing 284. Workers killed on the job hit a high since records have been kept of 310 in 2007. That’s according to data published by Safe Work Australia.
Incoming Industrial Relations Minister Julia Gillard endeavoured to slash that appalling death rate. She reduced the numbers significantly before becoming Prime Minister in 2010 and handing the portfolio to Chris Evans and then Bill Shorten who reduced fatalities even further.
In Labor’s last year, 2013, total deaths had tumbled to 201, the lowest since Safe Work Australia first published the annual tally in 2003.
Tragically for Australia’s workers, the Coalition returned to office in 2013 and the trajectory plateaued. The incoming conservative Government halted effective efforts to make workplaces safer, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously declaring that “a more productive economy is a less-regulated one” and “excessive regulation creates greater costs than benefits and discourages investment and the willingness to have a go”.
So the bosses had a go and by 2015, the number of workers killed jumped to 212.
In 2022, the year the Coalition lost office, 195 workers were killed, only two fewer than the 197 in Abbott’s first year in 2014.
At the end of August this year, 91 fatalities had been recorded. At the two-thirds point of 2023, we can therefore project a likely full-year tally of around 136. If that is achieved, it will be a new all-time low since records began, which is a substantial improvement given the employed workforce is now more than fifty per cent higher than in 2003.
This is no surprise given Tony Abbott’s enthusiastic backing for a gung-ho construction sector.
In 2013, Abbott said:
"I absolutely hope that in four or five years’ time people will say ‘Yes, that Tony Abbott, he did all sorts of things but, by God, he was an infrastructure Prime Minister. He was a builder’.”
In fact, Abbott built very little before he was sacked by his own team. But the construction industry took to heart his assurances that safety regulations were no longer a priority and relaxed their vigilance.
The number of construction workers killed soared immediately, from 13.5 per $100 billion of construction activity to 23 in Abbott’s first year. This leapt again in 2015 to 28.7 and to an appalling 37.7 deaths per $100 billion of output in 2016. This peaked in 2020 at 39.5, almost three times higher than Labor’s final level.