Trish Kelsh is a woman on a mission – she doesn’t want any more West Australian families to become a statistic like hers has. She lost her husband Desmond in a workplace accident several years ago.
workplace deaths puts laws under scrutiny
“He was a rigger and he was up putting the roof and the walls caved down and the roof caved down and unfortunately he was caught underneath it,” she said.
Since the beginning of this year, two people have been killed in workplace accidents in WA – one was run over by a rubbish truck, the other was a railway employee who died while working on the Perth City Link project.
Late last year, there were seven workplace deaths in a month, sounding alarm bells.
The Opposition says that was the biggest number of deaths in four decades.
Mrs Kelsh says she’s frustrated that years on, worker safety still isn’t being taken seriously.
“They haven’t learned anything, it’s a crisis and nobody’s doing one thing about it,” she said.
She is now retraining in occupational health and safety in bid to do her bit to improve workplace practices.
Worksafe Commissioner Lex McCulloch says his organisation can’t be blamed for the spate of deaths.
“They were from across a range of industries, so they weren’t one industry specific,” he said.
“There was no pattern to them, they were just very tragic and unfortunate.”
He says annual figures haven’t changed much but Mrs Kelsh describes them as unnecessary and ridiculous.
“One person on average per week is dying in Australia and that’s not even mentioning the injured ones,” she said.
“I think the Government should step in and make things better. We are not a third world country we should take more care of our workers.”
Unions WA’s Simone McGurk has renewed her calls for the nationalisation of workplace safety laws.
“They are better laws, they are stronger laws that employers wanted so that when they are operating across state boundaries they just have to deal with one set of laws,” she said.
While the State Government has indicated it eventually expects to sign up to the changes, it only plans to institute half the penalties employers would face if found responsible for a workplace death.
Commerce Minister Simon O’Brien denies that sends a weak message on workplace safety.
“The proposal in Western Australia is to increase the penalties dramatically to up to about $1.5 million, if we go ahead with the new laws,” he said.
“The degree of penalty for maximum penalty is fairly notional, they’ll still be very severe penalties available but as we’ve seen in the past, the courts do not impose anything like maximum penalties, so I think it’s wrong to say penalties themselves won’t be a disincentive.”
Mr O’Brien also doesn’t think it’s necessary to legislate to give a health and safety representative the authority to stop work because of an identified hazard, or to include the union right of entry in the new laws, which he says is already contained in industrial relations legislation in WA.
He’s defended delays in coming on board, blaming the Commonwealth for not providing adequate information for them to be properly debated.
“A realistic time frame is probably January 1, 2013; that’s the advice that we’ve got from our own Occupational Health and Safety Commission in Western Australia,” he said.
Meanwhile, the number of vacancies for Worksafe workplace inspectors continues to grow.
The organisation is now 21 inspectors short, something the opposition and unions claim is compounding the issue.
Worksafe Inspector Lex McCulloch denies his organisation has a problem with retention but says inspector pay is being reviewed.
“That has been a bit of an issue for staff so we have brought on someone to have a look at the levels for the inspectors to see whether there has been an increase in work value,” he said.
“The last time that was undertaken was in 2007, we’ve just commenced that process now.”
Mr O’Brien says he thinks people would be hard pressed to identify any of the deaths late last year as having been caused by inspector vacancies.
“I think its very regrettable if a tragedy is used as an excuse to score points,” he said.
“We had, of course, a three-year-old girl run over by a tractor that her grandfather was driving on the family farm. To say that that’s got anything to do with the fault of our legislation I think is a pretty cheap and nasty shot.”
Ms McGurk is concerned by the growth of high risk industries like mining and the growing use of contractors.
“The difficulties of maintaining a coherent safety management system when you are dealing with so many different contractors,” she said.
“Whether people actually feel confident to raise safety issues if they are employed as a subcontractor, whether you can engender the sort of safety culture that you want when you’ve got subcontracting to the extent; that’s another issue we think is worthy of closer examination.”
Ms McGurk accepts that not all employers can be tarred with the same brush.
As for Trish Kelsh, she’ll continue to campaign so others don’t have to experience a similar fate to hers.
“The emotional toll is shocking,” she said.
“I can’t describe it to you because the pain is just indescribable.”
[Source: ABC - http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-07/workplace-deaths-under-scrutiny-feature/3815610?section=wa]