Building Collapse and OH&S in the ACT

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.


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69 Responses to Building Collapse and OH&S in the ACT
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Mr Evil Mr Evil 4:25 pm 31 Oct 08

Even if the CFMEU push really hard for it, if the States can’t agree on how to save the Murray-Darling, what hope have we got on them agreeing to the creation of a nationwide OH&S body.

VicePope VicePope 4:25 pm 31 Oct 08

Thanks for this post. I think many people in many other workplaces should be asking if their union is as responsive to OH&S as is the CFMEU and, if not, why not. And those who are in workplaces that make it easy to join unions, find a way to change the culture or your job. People should not die from workplace accidents, and a union that works against accidents is one to be applauded.

I am, for the record, a CPSU member.

nomnomnom nomnomnom 4:25 pm 31 Oct 08

VYBerlinaV8_the_one_they_all_copy said :

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

wow, really?

The same engineer who signed off on the Leightons Formwork before it collapsed?

radonezh radonezh 4:35 pm 31 Oct 08

Do you reckon an engineer is required to sign off on the formwork’s ability to withstand the pour, or rather on whether the reo and layout are correct. My recollection of this process is that the engineer is only interested in whether the steel reinforcing is done according to the drawings, that the cover distances are correct, and general shape is right. I’ve never seen an engineer certify the bracing and propping. All they usually say on the drawings is “All work to be carried out in accordance with relevant WHS legislation/regulations by qualified people etc” or something along those lines.

Sarah Schoonwater Sarah Schoonwater 4:47 pm 31 Oct 08

Thanks for the question radonezh (and WIC).

The CFMEU supports nationally consistent OH&S rules and regulations and we have been campaigning hard here in the ACT to ensure that WorkCover inspectors have the training and resources they need to be pro-active and effective at ensuring that we have safe sites in the Construction Industry.

At the moment, the Federal Government is developing a national set of harmonised OH&S Standards. The CFMEU is developing its own best practice standards for OH&S and have submitted these to the

Like you both point out, a worker in Queanbeyan and a worker in Belconnen both have families and both deserve to know that every effort is being made to make sure that they can return safe every night. The safety of our members is our number 1 priority, so we want the harmonisation process to enshrine best practice from one jurisdiction across the whole country, rather than become a race to the bottom where workers safety is sacrificed to make a quick buck.

pure_blonde pure_blonde 5:04 pm 31 Oct 08

all this discussion on the same day a wall falls down on two men at a Belconnen Construction site and leaves them with serious injuries in Calvary Hospital.

Interesting… and its all blamed on a freak gust of wind.

Thumper Thumper 5:39 pm 31 Oct 08

This fatality rate is higher than the national road toll, and the injury at work rate is much, much higher than this.

Don’t get me wrong, workplace safety is paramount. However, is the above your usual way of presenting facts? If it is, then how can anyone believe a word you say?

Mr Evil Mr Evil 6:30 pm 31 Oct 08

CFMEU members are all very OH&S orientated – just look at footage of those CFMEU members who went nuts up at Parliament Hse a few years back, and were trying to smash the main doors in with chairs, lengths of pipe and even a sackbarrow – each and everyone of them was wearing a flouro safety vest or shirt!

Skidbladnir Skidbladnir 7:08 pm 31 Oct 08

Right of reply maybe, but nobody actually mentioned Ms Schoonwater by name, reputation, or position, only her organisation.
I don’t refer every complaint about my Department(or previous Organisations) to my Secretary, even for the times things have hit the media. There are people who would ordinarily deal with these things, even if I couldn’t.

Her interest in this may be workplace safety, but she did erect strawmen.
And she has a vested interest in using this to build her profile, and that of her organisation.
And her arguments are at least worthy of questioning, as they’re open to an interpretation that she’s actually implying more than she’s saying.
I’d still be interested in seeing what conclusions either side come to on this one, as people I have worked alongside would eventually be stored in the building.

thetruth thetruth 8:06 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.

Your experience is why I left the union too – on the whole (with some exceptions on the part of some very dedicated, caring and committed individuals)it wasn’t about a “fair go” it was about power.

thetruth thetruth 8:09 pm 31 Oct 08

pure_blonde said :

all this discussion on the same day a wall falls down on two men at a Belconnen Construction site and leaves them with serious injuries in Calvary Hospital.

Interesting… and its all blamed on a freak gust of wind.

How many of these accidents are the fault of poor workmanship or shoddy work practices on the part of union members themselves?

Passy Passy 8:41 pm 31 Oct 08

Thanks Sarah. A good post.

Unfortunately some on this site will attack unions, the CFMEU etc with the usual unsubstantiated allegations. Safety is the paramount issue, one a union must involve itself in and one in which it is legitimately involved.

It seems to be a case of blame the messenger; ignore the message.

As far as I am concerned, from what I have read so far Leightons deserves condemnation.

None of the anti-union posters have questioned the seeming push by some employers to cut safety corners to save money. This is exacerbated when unions are denied entry to union sites for the most basic of functions – to ensure the safety of their members.

One minor point. I thought it was actually that more people were killed or injured at work than die or are injured on our roads. (I’d have to check the figures, but suggest you clarify this.)

In other words we have had all these road safety public campaigns over many years but when it comes to a real campaign for work safety Governments won’t touch it because it might impose costs on the bosses.

This means it is up to the unions to make sure the workplace is safe.

Bill Tully asked me a question today on Behind the News on 2XX FM about what further actions the CFMEU was going to take about the collapse? I didn’t have an answer since I am not in the building industry. Sarah?

What are the next steps? Is Martin going to be allowed in? Are the workers going to be paid? Will similar formwork be examined elsewhere in Australia?

Keep up the good work CFMEU.

LlamaFrog LlamaFrog 8:55 pm 31 Oct 08

Passy, the only way Leightons would be able to cut safety corners to save money is if the employees go along with it. Someone actually has to cut the safety corner. If this is a union workforce then its union workers that are doing it.

Vic Bitterman Vic Bitterman 9:29 pm 31 Oct 08

Unions are nothing but sheltered workshops for bludgers and underachievers.

Today, they serve no other purpose.

radonezh radonezh 9:41 pm 31 Oct 08

Sarah Schoonwater said :

Thanks for the question radonezh (and WIC).

The CFMEU supports nationally consistent OH&S rules and regulations and we have been campaigning hard here in the ACT to ensure that WorkCover inspectors have the training and resources they need to be pro-active and effective at ensuring that we have safe sites in the Construction Industry.

At the moment, the Federal Government is developing a national set of harmonised OH&S Standards. The CFMEU is developing its own best practice standards for OH&S and have submitted these to the

Like you both point out, a worker in Queanbeyan and a worker in Belconnen both have families and both deserve to know that every effort is being made to make sure that they can return safe every night. The safety of our members is our number 1 priority, so we want the harmonisation process to enshrine best practice from one jurisdiction across the whole country, rather than become a race to the bottom where workers safety is sacrificed to make a quick buck.

I’m not talking about harmonization (that implies that the jurisdictions are all still running separate regulators and laws). I am talking about a single national regulator, and one set of laws for the entire country. Harmonization is an absolute cop-out, which will do nothing but entrench the existing, wasteful multi-jurisdicational bureaucracy.

The regulator must have power both over employers and over unions. Both of you are responsible DIRECTLY for safety (and, actually, the profitability and effectiveness of the industry you are in). It’s not just the employers who are directly responsible. Prohibition notices and fines should be issued both against the employer, and against the union involved. Unions are responsible because you influence the behaviour of your members. It’s not good enough for unions to just blame the employer. You are both to blame, and you both should be in the dock when there is a prosecution.

Skidbladnir Skidbladnir 9:42 pm 31 Oct 08

Passy, you’re a committed Socialist, with a personal version of reality which doesn’t really match the societal consensus, but it might be worth leaving the financial behavioural questions to other people.
From experience in several different varieties of businesses, and making deals with enough developers to know they’re just businesspeople too, but people will cut corners wherever they think the can, or know they can get away with it.

The major factor for most people is ‘is it worth the risk exposure’?
Be it getting your own staff to help out beyond their job description, having them work extra hours beyond their agreed time without penalties, or working them beyond normal ‘safe’ limits. I imagine construction has a great many such sitatgnms. The only time it actually becomes a problem is when an incident needs to be dealt with to prevent the risk you took coming back to haunt you in all its costly glory, or someone starts asking the right kind of questions to force a reaction.

cranky cranky 10:00 pm 31 Oct 08

Buggered if I know how we all get through the weekend without OH&S assistance.

All those motormowers, whippersnippers, chainsaws, hedgetrimmers, ladders, etc. It’s a wonder Monday’s CT isn’t full of death notices from misadventure from these demonic implements!

Perhaps it’s a case of self preservation and common sense that means we are able to get to work Monday. Apparently this same common sense goes out the window when passing through the gates of a construction site.

radonezh radonezh 10:04 pm 31 Oct 08

Passy said :

Unfortunately some on this site will attack unions, the CFMEU etc with the usual unsubstantiated allegations. Safety is the paramount issue, one a union must involve itself in and one in which it is legitimately involved.

What are the next steps? Is Martin going to be allowed in? Are the workers going to be paid? Will similar formwork be examined elsewhere in Australia?

Keep up the good work CFMEU.

The reason people think so lowly of unions is because you guys are all care and no responsibility.

Speaking of responsibility, whose responsibility was it to check and certify that the scaffolding was up to the task? I can tell you it certainly isn’t the legal responsibility of the civil engineer involved. Which of you building union reps who claim to be so safety-oriented actually bother to use their “right of entry” to check scaffolding (or other equipment) on a regular basis, and if you find it’s wrong, which of you actually do something positive about it other than stop work or blame the principle contractor?? Which of you union guys driving around in your shiny new CFMEU company cars actually thinks “hey, we could help the company save some lives here if we find a way to replace this scaffolding without cutting profits or making the workplace inefficient”? You all think that all you have to do is point the finger at the company, but actually the unions are just as much to blame. You have an opportunity to do something really positive for your members, but you’re all just too busy playing your left-wing politics. Every incident that occurs is just another opportunity for the unions to point the finger AT SOMEONE ELSE. Yet you keep taking union dues from the working man. You have enough money to afford some pretty flash offices around the country – every bit as flash as the corporate offices. Why don’t you invest some in paying for better equipment? Do you think the subbies can afford it? They’re busting their backsides against rising interest rates and corporate greed. The last thing they need is the union shutting down their operation without providing a positive solution.

radonezh radonezh 10:08 pm 31 Oct 08

cranky said :

Buggered if I know how we all get through the weekend without OH&S assistance.

All those motormowers, whippersnippers, chainsaws, hedgetrimmers, ladders, etc. It’s a wonder Monday’s CT isn’t full of death notices from misadventure from these demonic implements!

Perhaps it’s a case of self preservation and common sense that means we are able to get to work Monday. Apparently this same common sense goes out the window when passing through the gates of a construction site.

That right – they are so good (currently) at chucking a prohib notice on a hammer drill, but they do nothing about the big picture. When the big equipment goes bung, it usually goes bung in a big way, and when that happens, there is usually catastrophic human cost, societal and business cost. The whole focus of OHS regulators is all over the place. This is why there needs to be one, and only one.

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