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Building Collapse and OH&S in the ACT

By Sarah Schoonwater - 31 October 2008 69

Firstly, can I thank all of you who have posted to Riot Act over the past few days on the collapse of formwork at the Leighton’s job in civic on Monday.  It is important that the issues surrounding occupational health and safety on construction are discussed in all social and political forums, and prevention of such ‘accidents’ is quite simply what is needed to bring down the fatality and injury toll on Austalian work sites.  It must be remembered that on average one construction worker in Australia is killed every single week at work.  This fatality rate is higher than the national road toll, and the injury at work rate is much, much higher than this.

The facts are simple when it comes to accidents in the construction industry.  Workers lives are put at risk when there are shortcuts taken by contractors and principle contractors, when excessive hours are worked, and when current laws prevent trained Cert 4 OH&S union officials access to construction sites.  Safety is union business, because it is the primary concern of our members and every other construction worker when they roll up for work every day.  Union sites are safer sites, speak to any construction worker and they will tell you the same thing.

The CFMEU’s first priority always has been and always will be safety, and we believe that it is the fundamental right of every worker to be able to return home to their family and friends at the end of a working day.  Having spoken to many of the workers who were on site this week, they have spoken of how their first thoughts were that they were about to die.  At least three of the men on site, had concrete and formwork and metal collapse within metres of where there were standing.  One man told me that all he could think of was that his family needed him, his son, his daughter and his girlfriend needed him.  I know when I got the phonecall about the collapse, my first question was “who has been killed?”.

The CFMEU is not about heavy handed tactics, or bullying or indeed ‘thuggery’.  As the first female Secretary of a Building and Construction Industry, I assure you the ‘thug’ label certainly does not apply to me or any of the officials and staff I choose to employ. 

But one thing must be said; when workers lives are put at risk, when there are practices which are used on construction sites to save money, and create time efficiencies, I will not stand down from fighting against these practices.  I will not back away from the workers rights for Authorised Safety Representatives – which include many trained union officials – to stop trying to gain access to work sites.  And I certainly will not be backing away from ensuring that all construction workers are provided with the same rights as all other workers in Australia, and to achieve that the abolition of the Australian Builiding and Construction Commission (ABCC).  It must be remembered that most of the ‘complaints’ investigated by the ABCC involved workers, delegates and union officials who stopped work because of safety breaches. 

My goal every day when I come to work is to ensure that every single one of my members and their collegues go home to their families at night.  If that means that I am labelled a ‘thug’ or if it means I face interrogation or a goal sentence because of the current IR laws and the existence of the ABCC, then so be it. 

What’s Your opinion?


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69 Responses to
Building Collapse and OH&S in the ACT
caf 3:34 pm 31 Oct 08

Skidbladnir: I think it is quite clear that the post is to exercise “right of reply”. And you don’t know what a strawman argument is.

VYBerlinaV8_the_one_ 3:22 pm 31 Oct 08

I’d be more inclined to put human safety into the hands on a qualified engineer, rather than someone with a Cert IV.

Grail 3:20 pm 31 Oct 08

Jazz – noone can ever be “independent” when employed by the same agency that issues the building permits and deals exclusively with the developers. The ACT Government does not deal directly with the employees, they deal directly with the developers, through building applications, licences, policing of environmental standards.

ACT Workcover is there to ensure that certain minimal levels of safety are adhered to as a matter of law. When it comes to political pressure, I would expect that ACT Workcover will be under extreme pressure for the work to go ahead, with a commitment from the work site to remedy any identified flaws as soon as practicable after staff return to work.

The union OH&S will be present to make complaints based on the union’s idea of what is a “safe” workplace. They would be pressuring the developer to remedy any safety risks before staff return to work.

If someone from ACT Workcover can correct me, I welcome it.

In the meantime, I’ll be eagerly anticipating the report on this incident. Hopefully it will turn out to be the result of a breach of safety standards, rather than some new failure which needs more standards developed to address it.

Sarah Schoonwater 3:15 pm 31 Oct 08

Jazz said :

Thanks for the post Sarah. Can you explain to me why a union OH&S official is needed in addition to the one provided by an independent body in the shape of ACT Workcover in order to ratify safe working conditions before the site is reopened?

Thanks for your question Jazz.

The CFMEU employs OH&S experts who have Cert IV qualifications. Employees who choose to join the CFMEU want us to represent their safety on construction sites, so we believe that is democracy.

It is important to remember that I did complain to WorkCover regarding the demolition worker in Belconnen earlier this year and they declared the site safe 15 minutes before 3 tonnes of cement crashed onto the pavement and crushed a (fortunately empty) car.

Another accident has happened in the last 3 hours where a wall has collapsed; thankfully no one has been killed. The company involved in the collapse today have contacted the CFMEU requesting our assistance in improving their safe method statements for the future to prevent things like this happening again.

Surely, the more well trained and experienced experts that we have out on the job ensuring safe working environments, from WorkCover or the Union, the better.

Skidbladnir 3:03 pm 31 Oct 08

Oh, and I hope you’ll stick around and read how this thread develops, Ms Schoonwater.

Yes, we can be very critical, but occasionally we’re also supportive.
I, for one, enjoy a good debate, and thanks for writing in.

affordable 3:02 pm 31 Oct 08

VY Berlina V8 and Jazz

totally agree with both comments

Skidbladnir 3:00 pm 31 Oct 08

Okay, before the thread gets derailed, can I ask what prompted Ms Schoonwater to write up a piece for the Riot about the CMFEU and her experiences?

Can she also provide a verifiable citation or source for both her “1 fatality a week” statistic, and her “higher than the road toll” comparison?

Strawman, Misrepresentation, or Informal Stuctural Fallacy alert:
The CFMEU’s first priority always has been and always will be safety, and… fundamental right of every worker to be able to return home…
No person can argue against this point without being labelled as condoning unsafe work practices.
Very few employment situations outside being a military combat engineer actually demands personnel risk death everyday for their pay.
However, she could possibly be more correct and appear slightly more rational if she suggested an audience that in US studies, factory work, mining, and construction have consistently scored amongst the lowest in workplace safety assessments.
For workplace homicide, apparently taxi drivers and retail staff are the worst affected.
For Australian data, simple links like this one to Google, or this on to Safety Australia could also be useful in an online forum.

For her ‘three workers’ can she provide clarification of her ‘within meters’? I live ‘within meters’ of I work, or ‘within meters’ of where people die everyday, but it is _several thousand_ meters.

While certainly, as Secretary of ACT CFMEU, she can claim that none of those you _employ_ resort to thuggery, or can be labelled thugs, the CFMEU’s staff and leadership are technically the organisation’s service and advocacy personnel, not the membership.

But she cannot speak of the actions of members as to wether or not they are thuggish, because 1) they pay her fees, and 2) she is the ACT Secretary of the organisation, and 3) she works in an office in Dickson and had to be notified by telephone.
I imagine any emotionally-charged behaviour of members, thuggish or otherwise, was over by the time she arrived onsite.

She then starts her final paragraph with another strawman, uses an “If” statement, and then issues an ultimatum.

VYBerlinaV8_the_one_ 2:57 pm 31 Oct 08

The point I am making is that the (large and well-known) union I was affiliated with was vastly more interested in increasing its power base and protecting members (from situations that were clearly their fault) in order to preserve the perception of control, than with genuinely protecting its members.

As I said, I value worker safety (in fact I think it should be priority number 1), but I saw no real evidence of this when performing the union delegate role.

Now, I should probably admit that is was some years ago that I was a union delegate, but the taste it left in my mouth has lingered, and I am very distrustful of unions’ seeming altruism.

verbalkint 2:56 pm 31 Oct 08

http://www.ascc.gov.au/NR/rdonlyres/656E6571-D7B3-4DD6-846B-78C161CA0F4D/0/Compendium_of_Workers_Compensation_Statistics_200506_Full_version.pdf

According to the OASCC the average deaths in the construction industry is actually a little less – 43 per year – over the last decade, and really, that isnt too far from 52, especially when you’re talking about people being killed at work.

Perhaps the 14,000 serious injuries (needing more than a week off work and with some perminent damage having been done) in the Construction Industry per year, might have been a better statistic to use?

D-Man 2:52 pm 31 Oct 08

VYBerlinaV8_the_one_they_all_copy said :

As a former union delegate I have nothing but disgust and disdain for organised unions. Once I saw what really goes on, and the way unions think thay can control organisations to forward their own agendas (ie increasing their power base), I quit the role.

I am all for worker safety, but from the sound of this story you’d think OH&S were what the unions were about. Bullcrap. The fact that the story contains unsubstantiated and incorrect figures illustrates this point.

When unions are about negotiating a fair deal and physically protecting their members I’ll support them. Until then, forget it. I’ve seen first hand what happens on the front line of union activity, and it is a bloody disgrace.

Those are pretty serious accusations to throw around without any specific examples. I have had many dealings with numerous unions and, having seen first hand the incredible amount of effort they put into worker safety would describe your post as ‘bullcrap’.

Jazz 2:52 pm 31 Oct 08

Thanks for the post Sarah. Can you explain to me why a union OH&S official is needed in addition to the one provided by an independent body in the shape of ACT Workcover in order to ratify safe working conditions before the site is reopened?

VYBerlinaV8_the_one_ 2:37 pm 31 Oct 08

As a former union delegate I have nothing but disgust and disdain for organised unions. Once I saw what really goes on, and the way unions think thay can control organisations to forward their own agendas (ie increasing their power base), I quit the role.

I am all for worker safety, but from the sound of this story you’d think OH&S were what the unions were about. Bullcrap. The fact that the story contains unsubstantiated and incorrect figures illustrates this point.

When unions are about negotiating a fair deal and physically protecting their members I’ll support them. Until then, forget it. I’ve seen first hand what happens on the front line of union activity, and it is a bloody disgrace.

MrIncredible 2:33 pm 31 Oct 08

caf said :

I am supportive of unions, and highly supportive of campaigning to improve safety at construction sites. However, if one contruction worker is indeed killed each week at work (in itself this is unacceptably high), that is 52 deaths a year, which is nowhere near the national road toll (1616 in 2007). Even one worker killed a day wouldn’t come close to the road toll.

Heresy! Uncle Joe MacDonald is on his way to your place for a little ‘chat’.

caf 2:30 pm 31 Oct 08

I am supportive of unions, and highly supportive of campaigning to improve safety at construction sites. However, if one contruction worker is indeed killed each week at work (in itself this is unacceptably high), that is 52 deaths a year, which is nowhere near the national road toll (1616 in 2007). Even one worker killed a day wouldn’t come close to the road toll.

D-Man 2:23 pm 31 Oct 08

The ABCC is a bloody disgrace. And why the heck hasn’t Kevin Howrudd killed it yet?

Perhaps he’s waiting for a committee to release it’s findings on whether to set up a board of review to commission an enquiry into the suitability of establishing a committee to look into the possibility of setting up a independent auditor to review a start date for an ABCC enquiry?

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