While public debate focuses on the threat posed by Islamic extremists, workplace fatalities in Australia are on the rise, with the death toll from employment-related accidents in some industries already higher than for the whole of 2013, government statistics show.

As of mid-September, 129 Australians have been killed at work, compared to 125 people killed to the equivalent point in 2013, Safe Work Australia statistics show. The mining sector has already exceeded the death toll for the whole of 2013, with 12 people killed, and the construction industry has already claimed 18 lives, already one more than for the whole of 2013. Transport, the biggest sector for workplace deaths, is also performing worse than 2013, while agriculture, second biggest, is tracking around the same as last year.

The rise in workplace deaths this year defies years of improved workplace safety data: the incidence of workplace deaths rose from 2003-04, peaked in 2007-08 and has fallen dramatically since then, with an overall incidence rate in 2011-12 nearly half of what it was in 2002. Even so, 186 Australians went to work in 2013 and didn’t come home — far more than the total number of Australian victims of terrorism in recent decades.

The surge in deaths in mining is particularly concerning given the number of people working in mining peaked in 2012-13 and has been falling ever since. Moreover, the industry’s problems were identified more than six months ago when the Queensland Mines Safety Commissioner warned that the “tragic loss of life in the mining industry is unacceptable and immediate steps must be taken to stop it”, noting that contractors were overrepresented in mining workplace fatalities. Like the construction industry, the mining industry — which forms much of the non-building construction sector, one of the worst sectors in the economy for workplace safety — has constantly sought to push more of its workforce out of permanent employment and onto contractor status to lower labour costs, prompting claims from unions about sham contracting. “I’m concerned that some mining operations regard these risks as not their responsibility, whereas in my view they should review and approve the contractor’s processes and procedures before the work begins, and integrate them into the site’s safety and health management system,” Bell warned.

The mining industry, however, is more relaxed about safety than the Commissioner. In a submission to the then-Australian Building and Construction Commission’s inquiry into sham contracting in the building industry, mining peak body the Australian Mines and Metals Association sought to downplay the existence of sham contracting, claiming it only happened rarely and at the lowest levels of the industry. “AMMA is not saying that a problem of sham contracting in the building and construction industry does not exist, merely that there is insufficient evidence of its prevalence at this stage on which to proceed with further regulation.”

And in a submission to an inquiry into the government’s effort to re-establish the ABCC last November, AMMA singled out what it called “alleged safety concerns” being misused by employees to engage in industrial action. “AMMA welcomes a reverse onus of proof being applied to those taking industrial action for alleged safety reasons, with the bill requiring individuals to prove their safety concerns are genuine in order for such action not to be deemed unlawful,” the body said, in words that are now a bad look given industry deaths are currently running at well over twice the rate of 2013.

Safe Work Australian is a joint Commonwealth-state and territory body that receives a total of around $27 million a year to take “primary responsibility to lead the development of policy to improve work health and safety and workers’ compensation arrangements across Australia”. The National Commission of Audit recommended it be abolished and its functions moved into the Department of Employment. As the reduction in workplace deaths since 2008 has shown, concerted government action focused on specific types of injury and particular industries, and employers who take safety seriously, can make a significant difference to the number of Australians who die at work. Getting our workplace fatality incidence back down will save far more lives than the hysterical focus on terrorism ever will.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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