As the pink batts program hits the front pages again, there’s plenty of finger-pointing at Labor over workplace deaths. Look at the full picture, however, and it’s a very different story.
With claims of the Rudd government’s culpability in the deaths of insulation installers under the Housing Insulation Program once again receiving attention, it’s timely to look at how workplace safety has fared under Labor.
Since 2007-08, according to data from Safe Work Australia, the incidences of compensated workplace fatalities have fallen by one-third, rapidly accelerating a slow downward trend since the turn of the century.
The most recent data suggests the number of deaths per 100,000 workers fell below two in 2010-11, although this figure is likely to be adjusted upwards as more data for that year becomes available. Conservatively, that means 100 fewer people died than otherwise would have.
The incidence of serious claims has also fallen, from 14.2 per 1000 workers in 2007-08 to 13 in 2009-10. Current data, which will be revised in the future, suggests the figure is below 11 for 2010-11.
The fall has partly been driven by a safer construction industry, which in 2010-11 was on-track for a record low incidence of fatalities of below four per 100,000 employees compared to over 10 in 2003-04. As a large employer of over 1,000,000 workers, safety in construction has a major influence on overall workplace fatality rates. The transport sector, which employs around 600,000 people, has also seen significant falls in fatalities: the Rudd government inherited a rate of 16.9 deaths per 100,000 employees; that was 9.9 in 2009-10 and 8.5 in 2010-11.
However, Australia’s least safe industry continues to be agriculture. Agriculture is one of Australia’s smallest major industries in terms of employment, with just over 300,000 workers currently, which means the numbers are more volatile, but agriculture easily accounts for the greatest number of deaths. In 2010-11 there were 60 recorded fatalities in agriculture, compared to 38 in construction. The most common cause of compensated deaths in agriculture (a potentially misleading statistic because compensated fatalities only apply to employees, who are just over half the workforce on farms) are vehicle accidents or being hit by vehicles or other moving objects.
How much have government policies contributed to this significant fall in workplace fatalities? Bill Shorten has emphasised workplace safety since he became Workplace Relations Minister. Anthony Albanese has made road transport safety a priority as Infrastructure Minister, although the Safe Rates Tribunal has only started work this year; the main changes in road transport so far have been a significant expansion in the number of rest areas. The downgrading and then abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the primary task of which was harassment of unionists in the construction industry, is also likely to see a greater focus on safety; under the former Howard government, workplaces fatalities in the construction industry spiked when the Building Industry Taskforce, the precursor to the ABCC, was established in 2002.
One way or another, Australian workplaces, on the most recent data, are significantly safer than six years ago, except in agriculture, which remains a stain on our workplace safety record.