House debates

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Statements on Indulgence

West Gate Bridge

5:16 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Workplace Relations) Share this | Hansard source

As previous speakers have said, it was 48 years ago on a windy Monday, 15 October at about 10 minutes to 12 that, 50 metres above the Yarra, 128 metres of concrete and steel began to shudder and then fell, taking with it the lives of many workers. Then 2,000 tonnes of concrete and steel fell onto the muddy ground below. Mixed within the steel and the rubble were the bodies of 35 men, and 18 more were injured.

Today you can actually see the bridge from a CFMEU training facility that they've built to ensure, with best-practice training, that such a tragedy can never happen again. I've had the opportunity to go to this facility that's been built. They train workers on safe practices of using rigging equipment and cranes. They work closely with all in the sector to ensure that this tragedy, which affected so many families, can never happen again.

Construction is a dangerous industry. Every year, not just the year 48 years ago, too many construction workers lose their lives because of unsafe work practices. Far too often we hear that it wasn't just a random accident and that, prior to the incident occurring, there's been a safety report that's been ignored. There have been workers who have raised it with co-workers or with family members but are sometimes too nervous to raise it with their bosses, or they have raised it with their bosses only to be told to get back to work.

Too many construction workers have lost their lives this year and last year. Since the reintroduction of the ABCC, we've unfortunately seen workplace deaths on construction sites increase, not decrease. There was a period where they were starting to decrease, when safety officers, union officials and union delegates did have the freedom to speak up and, by speaking up, weren't subject to draconian, authoritarian ABCC thug-like tactics.

I raise this because it's important. Whilst this parliament stops to remember the greatest industrial accident in our country's history, which took the lives of 35 men who turned up for work and didn't return home that day and injured another 18, what have we really learned from that time?

How many workers continue to lose their lives because we're not listening and working together to ensure that every worker returns home safe?

There was the incident that occurred in Melbourne when a worker, who was a CFMEU delegate, was in an accident at work. The young man lost his life. But, rather than the ABCC, created by this government, investigating to make sure that it was an accident and to make sure that everything had been done to ensure proper safety on the site, the CFMEU was fined. They were issued notices to show cause about why they entered the site; it was to hold, in one of the official's arms, his dying mate. That's the nature of what happens in our workplaces when we politicise safety and when we politicise industrial relations like the government have.

We need to do more to rebuild trust in our workplaces and to rebuild trust around safety. Workers need to be able to raise issues of safety when they're worried—like that moment of seeing the wind blow and hearing those creaks. Workers need to feel safe to speak up about it, particularly in dangerous industries like construction. But it's not limited to construction. Construction is one of the most dangerous industries in our country, but an industry that sits just above it in terms of workplace death and injury is our road-transport industry. Unfortunately, it's another industry where far too many people working in that industry have lost their lives this year whilst at work. Farming and agriculture is another industry where, again, far too many workers and farmers have lost their lives during the course of their workday.

Day to day, many of us in Victoria would use this bridge. I know, during my own travels from Bendigo into town, you do see the bridge, and you do see it when making the trip across to Altona and the western suburbs. It is one of the most used traffic routes in our country, but rarely do we stop, think about and reflect on the worst industrial disaster that we've had in this country. I know that those families affected still reflect on it regularly. They still tell those stories. I know, from meeting with many of those families and many of their children, who are now the leaders in the union movement in Victoria, they speak about the nightmares and the horrors that their parents had. And it was not just the ones who lost a father or a brother but also the ones who were lucky to survive. As the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday, some of them had survivor guilt—why were they the lucky ones?

It shouldn't come down to luck in our workplaces. Surviving a day at work shouldn't be about luck; it should be a given. We need to do more in this place to ensure that our laws support safety and encourage safety and that an employee knows exactly how to work, how to behave and what to do to be safe. Equally, we need to ensure that employers are held to account and that they know what to do and what they aren't doing so, when workers raise safety concerns, they're not dismissed and, when workers stop work because that concern hasn't been properly addressed, it's not dismissed, the ABCC is not called in, the Fair Work Commission is not called in and it is worked out constructively and fairly.

Until every Australian workplace is safe and until every Australian has the right to come home to their family and to their people, there is more for us to do. Beyond just construction, farming and agriculture, in all industries there's more work for us to do when it comes to industrial diseases like asbestosis. The third wave of asbestosis is just starting to hit, and we are learning more and more about men and women working in small businesses who are contracting the disease. Beyond just asbestos, there are other carcinogenics. Unfortunately, black lung is back in Queensland, and we're hearing of more and more coalmining workers being diagnosed with that disease.

Then we have the case of the workers involved with silicosis, which some in the medical community are calling the 'new asbestos'. They estimate that at least 300 workers will be diagnosed with this lung condition and possibly die of this lung condition in the next 12 months. As one of the workers in this industry said to me: 'It's dying for fashion. It's fashionable for people to have benchtops that look like stone, but this is not stone. The product that we're using in these homes is not stone; it's a composite which, when it is cut, is creating dust particles that can lead to this insidious disease which causes death.' There's a lot of work that we need to do here in relation to Safe Work Australia, industrial relations and the work that we do with the states.

Around 10 Australians have died at work since the parliament last met, and at least 30 in the construction industry. If this place is genuine about learning from the mistakes of the past and genuine about honouring the memory of the anniversary of the West Gate Bridge disaster, we all should do more to ensure that every workplace is safe and that every worker returns home at the end of the day.

Debate adjourned.


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