Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 December 2014


Queensland: Occupational Health and Safety

10:09 pm

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak on occupational health and safety in my home state of Queensland. Far too often there is little attention paid to the impact that workplace health and safety has on working Australians and their families when it fails to provide the protections that it is meant to. During the 10-year period ended in 2012 Australia saw a 28 per cent annual reduction in the incidence of work related injuries. During the same period our nation saw a 42 per cent decrease in annual compensated work related fatalities. Whilst these numbers are encouraging, there is still much work to be done: 531,800 people in Australia suffered a work related injury or illness in the last year and 180 people, unfortunately, died. That is why today I take this opportunity to highlight work being done in my home state at the University of Queensland. The work is scheduled for completion in mid-2016.

The Centre for Research on Exercise, Physical Activity and Health within the School of Human Movement Studies won a grant from the Heart Foundation to examine employees' and employers' perceptions of physical activity in the workplace. It was a small grant but worthwhile. The $150,000 grant will be used to identify practical solutions to promote activity and encourage workers to sit less through the day. This research will support the Heart Foundation's work to advocate for activity-promoting workplaces. According to the lead researcher, Professor Wendy Brown, if workplaces encourage more physical activity and discourage long periods of uninterrupted sitting at work, the risks of employees developing certain health problems can be significantly reduced. These health problems include ailments that kill many Australians every year, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.

The research will use focus groups to explore the knowledge, attitudes and perceptions that employees and managers have of sitting and moving at work, and ideas and ways for improving workplace activity patterns. Professor Brown said that the research will target people working in the transport, mining and manufacturing industries as well as in call centres and private sector offices. By interviewing managers in the same companies they do hope to discover existing policy initiatives and the feasibility of introducing further strategies to encourage less sitting and more activity in the workplace.

Dr Nicholas Gilson acknowledged the role that unions play in mediating between employees and employers along with the role played by OH&S managers. They are hoping to investigate the role that managers play in championing physical activity guidelines and promoting a workplace culture of moving more and sitting less. The end result will be a two-part report that will highlight strategies that support and influence the creation of activity-promoting workplaces, barriers to making positive changes and practical resources with best-practice case studies.

Work safety is good for the Australian economy, good for productivity and good for workers and their families. I take this opportunity to commend the University of Queensland and their partners in this research for taking proactive action to support working families in this important area of Australian life. However, while researchers are looking for new and innovative ways to protect the health and wellbeing of Australian workers, members opposite and their state counterparts in the Queensland government are doing their very best to erode even the most basic existing protections—protections that have been fought for over many generations by working Australians and the unions which represent them. This includes the attacks by the Abbott government on the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal and their intent to reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission and to change access to the Comcare scheme. We have seen attacks by the Abbott government on the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency as well.

Do not be deceived: these attacks are a short-term policy at the expense of long-term productivity, health and safety. These changes are being made by a Prime Minister who said before the election that he would not attack workers' conditions. Well, workers' conditions are being attacked by this government. If it was not enough that he had his fingers on their penalty rates and super, he is coming for some of the most basic hard fought for protections. To top it off, if those opposite have their way, when hardworking Australian workers do get sick or injured at their workplaces they will be slugged with a fee to see a doctor.

Similarly, Mr Abbott's Queensland counterpart, Premier Campbell Newman, has been attacking OH&S protections at the state level. We have seen changes that reduce a person's access to compensation based on the level of their perceived injury. Specifically, if an employee did not meet the quota set out by the government that determines the severity of their injury, they would not be entitled to seek common law remedies against their employer, even if their employer could be shown to have been negligent in maintaining workplace safety. These are not the only changes to worker safety regulations that have put against Queensland workers. The Work Health and Safety Act came into effect in May. Among the dangerous changes made by this legislation were a requirement that union officials with a right to entry permit give 24 hours notice before they can enter a workplace to investigate an OH&S violation and removing the power of a health and safety representative to direct workers to cease unsafe work should they become aware of a risk in the workplace. These changes by Liberal governments at both the state and federal level show where their priorities lie. If they can save their rich mates a few dollars here and there they will cut anything they can from Australian workers and their families.

On a happier note, as we approach the festive season can I enjoin with one thing on which I do agree with the Queensland government WorkCover and that is to make sure workers stay safe during this time. It is a dangerous period for workers. WorkCover advises that claims tend to rise as we approach the Christmas period. At this time everybody is rushing to finish things before the Christmas holidays. They are busy finalising their work. It can be very easy to lose concentration and this can lead to mistakes and injuries. If your business is employing temporary workers to cover the holiday season or adding staff to deal with the holiday rush, do take a moment to remember to ensure they have a full safety induction, that they have been briefed and trained in the operational safety of machinery. And turn an eye to temporary workers: they can also be at a greater risk because they are hired for a short period and most often for a specific job and they can be vulnerable to not receiving the full safety training. It does not stop there. We also need to ensure they also are well trained before entering workplaces.

Christmas parties can be a great time to catch up with co-workers and to celebrate the year's end. It is also worth remembering from the perspective of employers and employees that the safety message still applies. It is still a workplace, one to which everyone wants to return after the pleasant co-worker engagements and then to meet their families. To employers, please do all you can to ensure your workers stay safe over the festive season.