House debates

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Statements on Indulgence

West Gate Bridge

4:45 pm

Photo of Kelly O'DwyerKelly O'Dwyer (Higgins, Liberal Party, Minister for Jobs) Share this | Hansard source

Today we recall the tragedy of the West Gate Bridge collapse. The West Gate is a bridge that is dear to every Melbournian because, as you drive over the top of this bridge, the marvellous sweeping vista of our great city is unveiled, from Port Phillip Bay all the way to the Dandenongs. But it is also a bridge that has an unforgettable and tragic history, not only for Victorians but for all Australians.

The West Gate Bridge accident happened two years into construction of the bridge at 11.50 am on a windy Thursday, on 15 October 1970. A 112-metre-long span weighing 2,000 tonnes of steel and cement collapsed into the Yarraville mud below. Thirty-five construction workers were killed and another 18 were injured, most of them with life-changing injuries. Eighty-eight children lost their fathers in a few seconds on that awful morning. This was Australia's worst industrial accident. Many of those killed were on a lunch break in workers huts when the falling span crushed them. Others were inside the girder when it plummeted into the river. Descriptions of how the men were killed are too horrible to detail.

The following morning the then Premier of Victoria, Sir Henry Bolte, called a royal commission into the cause of the disaster. The royal commission reported eight months later, attributing the failure to multiple human errors and to flaws by the designers of the bridge, Freeman Fox. The royal commission also blamed the unorthodox method of construction undertaken by the bridge's original contractors. The designers at the time believed that they were constructing a bridge that pushed the boundaries of engineering knowledge. But, in doing so, their negligence cost a great number of lives. Error begat error, the royal commission concluded. The men who died and were injured were the innocent victims of these dangerous and calamitous failures, the royal commission found.

As Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations, I want to lend my deep sympathies to the families, relatives and colleagues of those who were killed and injured in this terrible tragedy. Like all of us, I believe unsafe workplaces are unacceptable and that we all have a responsibility to be diligent in finding ways to make our workplaces safer. Many lives were changed that day, and any Victorian who lived in the city has never forgotten that tragedy.

It is a fitting coincidence that every year in October Australian employers and workers participate in National Safe Work Month. This event began as National Safe Work Week in 2005, but five years ago was extended to National Safe Work Month. It is a particular time of the year when we all renew our commitment to building safer workplaces in Australia. This tragedy also helped shape our national focus on ensuring safety on all worksites and a shared commitment to people returning safely from a day on the job. We are indeed fortunate that Australia is one of the safest places in the world to work, but no industry should be unsafe to work in and no death or injury is acceptable. Injury or death in the workplace changes individuals' and families' lives forever. So we must do everything in our power to prevent accidents and unsafe workplaces.

The West Gate Bridge disaster was a tragic example of multiple factors contributing to a terrible accident. Our current health and safety laws provide an effective approach that has been shown to reduce workplace fatalities. We hold companies and managers accountable for any breaches of their duty of care to workers, regardless of whether an accident occurs. There are criminal offences on those who breach their duties, with fines of up to $3 million for companies and $600,000 for managers. Under our current criminal offences, individuals can be jailed if they are reckless or negligent and it leads to loss of life.

While every workplace death is a tragedy, the level of fatalities has been falling. Workplace fatalities have been reduced by 48 per cent, from 310 in 2007 to 190 in 2017. The rate of fatalities has halved from three fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2007 to 1.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2016. In the construction industry, the fatality rate has fallen by 45 per cent since 2007 and by 20 per cent since 2015. The rate of serious workers compensation has fallen 16 per cent over the five years to 2016-17. The evidence shows our model work health and safety laws are driving the right focus on preventing deaths and injuries.

The coalition government has been taking action across the country to ensure that workers and all Australians are safer in workplaces. To ensure that building sites are safer and fairer, we re-established the Australian Building and Construction Commission and implemented a strong Building Code for the industry. Our laws protect one million workers and over 300,000 small businesses from bullying and lawlessness in the industry. We have introduced mandatory drug and alcohol testing on Commonwealth-funded building sites to improve safety. We are completing a review of work health and safety laws and their effectiveness in the industry. The Federal Safety Commissioner has set new safety standards on Commonwealth-funded building projects. There has been a 24 per cent increase in companies under the WHS Accreditation Scheme cutting red tape while increasing safety.

We are also taking unprecedented action on asbestos. We have more than doubled the funding for the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, providing an extra $1.7 million for 2018-19. We have negotiated the first ever National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Management and Awareness, with all states and territories signing on. There are 150 activities taking place across Australia under the plan. We have strengthened border requirements to stop asbestos reaching Australia, and the Australian Mesothelioma Registry has been established.

Furthermore, we are taking urgent action on silicosis. As a result, Safe Work Australia will be updating the exposure standards for crystalline silica; requiring employers to monitor health of at-risk workers; developing an awareness campaign to help the industry manage risks; and hosting and broadcasting virtual seminars on silicosis risks. Safe Work Australia has already commenced a groundbreaking review of the workplace exposure standards; published national guidance on psychological health and safety in the workplace; developed nationally consistent policy on key areas of explosives regulation; transitioned Australia to the globally harmonised system for labelling chemicals; and commenced a comprehensive review of the model work health and safety laws. Our work is comprehensive but it is constantly evolving and it is constantly being updated.

In conclusion, the anniversary of the West Gate Bridge tragedy is a reminder to all of us to be ever vigilant in our efforts to reduce workplace accidents, because one death in our workplaces is one too many.


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