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.

4:53 pm

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to take the opportunity to support the comments made in the House by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition recognising the 48th anniversary of the West Gate Bridge collapse—an extraordinarily tragic occurrence that affected so many families so dramatically and, no doubt, for so long. There were 35 killed and 18 injured. The flow-on effects of that through a family and a community are significant.

As I listened to our leaders speak about this in the chamber, it very profoundly reminded me of occasions in my own electorate where we come together to commemorate, sadly, the significant number of lives lost in work based disasters. That's why I wanted to endorse the sentiments that were expressed on the anniversary of this particular disaster. Whilst it occurred in Melbourne and not in my own state of New South Wales, I think the repercussions and the feelings that people are reflecting in supporting the motion occur in any area where we've seen this sort of terrible tragedy occur. I absolutely heartily endorse the comments of both of our leaders.

I come from the Illawarra, which is obviously a long-time mining area. We've been doing underground coal mining for well over 100 years. On 31 July each year, a great local group of people at Mount Kembla gather together to put a commemoration service in place. It's always on a very, very cold evening at a place called Windy Gully but it's a very moving and very significant occasion. In 1902, the Mount Kembla Mine explosion occurred. As a result of that explosion, 96 men and boys were killed. I ask people in this room to imagine how small communities were in 1902. This is a little mining village. There wasn't a family who was not directly affected by that level of loss of life. If you look at some of the unofficial toll of deaths that occurred after the direct deaths caused, it would have been even higher, but 96 was an extraordinary number of lives to have been lost in a small community.

It's significant to me because my mum's family had direct ties to it. In fact, three of our ancestors were killed in that explosion: Claude Stafford, who was 17; David Stafford, who was 17; and William Stafford, who was 25. Whilst William was only 25, he was a widower with small children. The implications for these families were devastating and so we come together to commemorate that occasion.

Why is that so important? It's important to do that because, as I reflect each year as we meet, it reminds us starkly of the importance of ensuring that we do everything we possibly can to guarantee that people who pack their lunch bag or grab their wallet as they're going out the door and off to work in the morning, the afternoon or the evening—whenever they're working—come home to those families who are seeing them off and they don't die at work as a result of things that should be preventable.

Sadly, in 1979, we also saw the Appin coal mine disaster in our area, which was a significant loss of life again. In that time, my dad was employed at the mine, and I was actually living on the mine site. That occasion is profoundly burned in my memory. In fact, I'd been to a high school dance that night, and mum had come to pick us up. The father of one of the young guys who came back with us in the car was subsequently killed that evening.

These are really, really important reminders. Each of these resulted in inquiries, investigations and recommendations on better work health and safety. They are profound reminders of how vigilant we have to be on these issues not only for those workers but also for their families and communities. I do want to put on the record that I think one of the most important interventions that increases the likelihood that we are better at health and safety in our workplaces is the role of the trade union movement.

I know that some of those opposite see only bad in the union movement. I would ask them to look very, very closely at the significant work of unions. The Leader of the Opposition in his comments on this very motion reflected the fact that the West Gate Bridge disaster created a generation of activists, because of their dedication to improving safety. I look in my area at the miners' union and the critical role it has played in the introduction of better protective technologies, clothing and work practices. It is a critically significant and important role. Look at the role of unions like the Transport Workers Union. We all share the roads, but they are a workplace for these workers. It has worked continually for safer roads for its members and the general public, including in recent times very important work around mental health challenges as a workplace issue for drivers. Look at the work of the construction unions. Many of their industries are highly dangerous environments, and those union representatives spend a great deal of their time working directly with members on ways in which they can ensure that safety is improved. It is very important to recognise that that is really tough work sometimes. Sometimes those union representatives are doing home visits for families who have lost people, to extend the union support, the members' support, to them. They take on sometimes very recalcitrant employers who may not want to hear messages about safety, unfortunately.

There are a lot of really good employers in my region. Like me they come from families who've worked in the industry. They are great. They understand it and work really well, but you do come up against those with whom you have to have a bit of a battle to make sure that safety remains the dominant issue.

I wanted particularly, in this debate, to reiterate those sentiments and to express my support for the point that the Leader of the Opposition made that every time and on every occasion we're in a place in our community where there is a memorial as a result of a workplace disaster, when we speak in this place on these issues or when we watch another report on the news about another tragic workplace death—every single time—we make a commitment and a dedication that in this place in our roles as we currently perform them we remain vigilant and do everything we can to ensure that people are able to go to work safely and return home to the families that love and care for them. I extend my great sympathy and support to the members of families and communities that were affected by the West Gate Bridge collapse.

5:03 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm really pleased to be in the parliament today, to join those speaking on indulgence on the 48th anniversary of the West Gate Bridge collapse. Just before lunch on 15 October 1970 an eerie pinging noise filled the air. Moments later the West Gate Bridge fell, claiming the lives of 35 workers. All Melburnians remember that day; it is the worst industrial accident in our history.

In my primary school years there are three times I remember the broader world crashing into our classrooms. The first was man walking on the moon, and we were all in a classroom to watch it. This was the next. I was in a classroom in Melbourne's west, at St Andrew's primary school in a working class area with lots of children of British, Irish and Italian migrants. Lots of them had family members who were working on the West Gate Bridge. I will never forget our classroom that day or over the coming weeks. That sense of the world crashing around us was real in our classrooms across that week.

My first memories of looking at a newspaper are about the West Gate Bridge. I remember the shock. I remember thinking about the people who had gone to work on the bridge that day—the great people who were going to build this marvel for Melbourne. In the west of Melbourne, we didn't have a bridge to get to the city. It was a long, long journey. This bridge was going to be innovative, brave and bold—it was going to be all of those things. When it fell that day, families and communities were absolutely shattered—the day 2,000 tonnes of steel plummeted into the Yarra with an explosion that shook buildings hundreds of metres away and that could be heard more than two miles away. I think it's poignant that right now in Victoria, at a time when we're looking at major infrastructure projects and when young people and working-age people are excited about the jobs being created and excited about the training they might get, that this anniversary reminds us all about the importance of, in the excitement for these infrastructure projects, having at the forefront of our minds the safety of the workers who are going to deliver these projects.

In research for this, I came across George Tsehilios. He was 32 years old. He'd sold his blacksmith shop in Greece to come to Australia and had saved for eight years to buy a home in Altona for his wife and two sons. He lost his life that day. The stories of those 35 men who lost their lives needs to be remembered not just this year but every year. Every year the catastrophe is commemorated with a wreath laying in Melbourne at the ceremony at the foot of the bridge. In the words of Danny Gardiner from the West Gate Bridge Memorial Committee:

The legacy of those who lost their lives has been safer workplaces. This bridge is a monument to them all and a reminder that we all must work safe.

I have equally strong memories of the eventual West Gate Bridge opening and of going across it for the first time. Going across that bridge for the first time, like all members of the public from the western suburbs, our thoughts that night were for those people who lost their lives. The fall of the bridge was well and truly in the forefront of our minds, as it is for me every time I go across that bridge.

In a time of major infrastructure projects, I think it's really important that we take with us the lessons that we in Victoria learnt that day. We don't want to stop being bold and innovative. We don't want to stop designers from finding new ways to do things, but we do want to and we must make sure that, in all of that planning, occupational health and safety is given pride of place. In the words of Bill Shorten, 'Until every Australian workplace is safe, until every Australian has the right to come home to the people they love, there is more for all of us to do.' Every workplace death is a tragedy, and no workplace death is acceptable.

As the mother of sons who work in the building industry and as a sister who lost a brother driving his truck in his workplace, I have lived the reality of workplace deaths and of getting the phone call to tell you that a loved one hadn't come home from work. That's with me every day when my sons go to work. It's why I stand in this place and it's why I am so offended when people in this place deride unionism and collectivism. The falling of the West Gate Bridge is a poignant and compelling reminder of why we join unions and why we work collectively for safety and for fair remuneration. It is why all of us on the Labor side come together in this place to ensure that lives lost in workplace accidents are always remembered and are used to drive us forward to ensure that it is in the forefront of our builders' minds and in the forefront of all of the work we do to ensure that, as a workforce, we know we're going to leave our home in the morning, go to work and then come home.

5:09 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The collapse of the West Gate Bridge is an event etched in the psyche of Melbourne's west and of the people who live in my electorate, where this accident occurred. At 11.50 am on 15 October 1970, a 114-millimetre gap between spans 10 and 11 of the West Gate Bridge gave way, and 2,000 tonnes of steel and concrete fell over 50 metres into the Yarra below. On that day, 35 West Gate Bridge workers, many of them migrants, never returned to their families. Another 18 men suffered life-changing injuries. The 35 men—fathers, husbands and sons—lost their lives falling with the bridge, being hit by metal and concrete shrapnel or by the fire. The collapse of the West Gate Bridge remains the worst industrial accident in Australian history. The almighty crash of 2,000 tonnes of steel and concrete plummeting into the ground below could be felt and heard as far as 20 kilometres away. That's basically the entire area of my electorate.

Vincent Rosewarne, at the time a 24-year-old crane operator, was close to the site on the day. He was one of the few workers who, incredibly, extraordinarily, rode the span to the ground and survived the impact. His story, told to journalists from his hospital bed, is simply amazing. Vincent recounted a big rumbling and everything flying towards the centre of the bridge. He grabbed a piece of steel and held on as he fell, with the bridge, 50 metres to the ground below. Witnesses saw him strike a wire mesh at ground level. Then he bounced back into the air, while steel crashed around him. Vincent suffered broken arms and a fractured leg.

George Bastecky, then a factory clerk, watched the bridge fall from his window overlooking the river. He recalls thinking that he would not have liked to have been working up on the bridge on such a windy day. He recalls seeing a crack appear in the bridge's support column. He saw the crack widen and then the column tumble into the Yarra. He also recalls seeing, almost in slow motion, the bridge section first dangling perilously and then collapsing in a heap of rubble, with a bang that shook him out of his chair.

About half a kilometre from the bridge, Ray Melroy remembers hearing a similar rumble. He then heard five explosions in succession and quickly rushed to the site of the collapsed bridge, as so many nearby did. At the site, Ray found death and destruction. He remembers finding men lying dead in the wreckage, smoke smouldering everywhere and dozens of men screaming. The sights, sounds and smells of the disaster and chaos stay with us and the residents of Melbourne's west forever. For the victims' families and survivors, the bridge collapse was a moment that changed their lives. For the rest of Australia, it was a catalyst for change in our nation's work health and safety laws and practices.

Noel Baker, a rigger during the construction of the bridge, has devoted his life to ensuring a West Gate accident never happens again. Noel recalls that 'in those days workers looked after their own safety'. He remembers that you did what you were told, management ruled with an iron fist and, if you thought something was unsafe, you kept it to yourself, because you had no say. A royal commission was established to investigate how this collapse could have happened. The commission's findings, together with longstanding union efforts, paved the way for strengthening occupational health and safety in Australian workplaces. In 1985 we passed our first Occupational Health and Safety Act. Australian workers now have elected health and safety representatives. Workers now have the right to talk about their safety and have their concerns addressed.

Australian workplaces are safer today than they were 48 years ago, but we still have work to do. In 2018 alone, 97 people have died at work—97 too many, 97 people who never returned to their partners, to their parents, to their children. The fight to improve workplace safety will not end. Australian unions were at the forefront of that fight when the bridge collapsed, and they continue to lead that fight today.

It is events like the West Gate Bridge collapse that drive the obsession with workplace safety that we see in so many trade unions in Australia. It's an insight into why Australian trade unionists are so passionate about these issues. They've seen the consequences, and they know how to fight to learn the lessons of the past. Noel Baker says that he hopes that no-one has to go through what he saw and experienced on that day 48 years ago. He says: 'At the end of the day, I'd hope that, when I leave the industry, it is a safe industry for anyone to come into. We'd like to see everyone go home.'

The West Gate Bridge is used by almost all of my constituents every day and is a Melbourne icon. The collapse is memorialised every year at the memorial at the base of the bridge by Australians who want us all to learn the lessons of this terrible tragedy. To my constituents across Melbourne's west: when you drive over the West Gate Bridge, when you cycle or walk under it or when you see the bridge from your homes or your places of work, I ask that you spare a thought for the workers who were killed that day and for the ongoing task of ensuring that all workers work in safe workplaces that enable them to return home to their families at the end of the day.

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.