Speech: 7th Annual Safe Work Australia Awards, 26 April 2012

27 April 2012


 Welcome ladies and gentlemen.

 I am honoured to be here this evening at the 7th annual Safe Work Australia Awards.

This is my first year hosting the Safe Work Australia Awards.

Since my appointment as the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations in December last year, I have been impressed by just how committed Australians and Australian workplaces are to improving work health and safety in this country.

Tonight’s thirty-seven finalists demonstrate what can be achieved through dedication to work health and safety.  They have raised the bar in safety excellence through their initiative, creativity and passion.  They are leading by example to ensure that workplaces across our nation and Australian workers are being kept safe.

Tonight we celebrate their achievements.

But more than that, I would also like to thank them.  To this year’s finalists, thank you. Thank you for your time, enthusiasm and perseverance.  Thank you for helping to ensure that you and your co-workers can go home from work each and every day free from injury, death and disease.

The reality of poor work health and safety practices is harsh. Tragically, two hundred and sixteen people died from injuries incurred while working in 2009-2010.

Two hundred and sixteen of our nation’s workers didn’t get to ‘grow old’. Two hundred and sixteen Australians’ lives were cut short by an incident in the workplace. I say incident, not accident. Workplace deaths and injuries are preventable. They are not accidents.

In many cases, the most effective change is for people to feel confident enough to speak up. Workers need to feel they can raise safety issues on a daily basis without fear, discrimination or ridicule. They must feel health and safety issues will be addressed by management and their concerns will be taken seriously and dealt with promptly.

It is alarming to think that the average age of workers who are killed at work in Australia is thirty-seven.

Thirty-seven years old: the age of John Christian Watson when he became our Prime Minister—our first Labor Prime Minister—in 1904.   Thirty-seven: the age that Einstein discovered his theory of relativity.   Thirty-seven: one year older than Cate Blanchett when she won her first Oscar.

When you think of the average thirty‑seven year old, you typically think of them as a mum or dad with a young family, so much to look forward to and so much to offer the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s why the initiatives that are being celebrated tonight are so important.

As you will learn tonight, the size of the business does not matter when it comes to improving safety.  Each of our finalists has implemented initiatives to improve the work life, and importantly reduce the risk of harm to their co-workers.

The organisations represented tonight range in size from under 10 workers to that of a few thousand.

The solutions themselves range from complex systems that have taken years to develop to ideas that show us that safety improvements are achievable by making the smallest of changes.

Initiatives tonight range from garbage chutes and custom built electric golf carts to customised fatigue management programs.

However, the one thing they all have in common is that they are all driven to improve work health and safety for their fellow workers. They are all working to embed the importance of work health and safety into Australia’s workplace culture.

All of this year’s finalists were category winners in their respective state, territory or Comcare awards.  Regardless of the outcome tonight, this in itself is a significant achievement.

The job of the Safe Work Australia Awards judging panel this year was not an easy one.  As the Chair of the panel and also Chair of Safe Work Australia, Tom Phillips tells me that the calibre of this year’s finalists was nothing short of outstanding. 

I would like to acknowledge this judging panel for their hard work and significant contribution to the awards:

-      Mr Tom Phillips from Safe Work Australia

-      Ms Tracey Browne from Australian Industry Group

-      Mr Simon Blackwood from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

-      Mr Jarrod Evans from WorkSafe Victoria

-      Ms  Toula Papadopoulos (PAP-A-DOP-POO-LUS ) from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry

-      Mr Percy Pillai (PILL-EYE) from the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Along with the Awards judges, I would also like to take a moment to acknowledge the contribution from the Commonwealth, state and territory work health and safety authorities.  Without them, these Awards would not be possible.

Work health and safety is a priority of the Australian Government.

On 1 January this year, we saw harmonised model work health and safety laws commence in the Commonwealth, Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Northern Territory and Queensland.  The laws will commence in Tasmania on 1 January next year.

Under the model legislation, workers must be given a reasonable opportunity to express their views and to raise work health and safety issues. Workers must be consulted when hazards are identified and risks are assessed and when decisions are made about eliminating or minimising those risks. This is not a regulatory burden; it is common sense and it happens in good workplaces all over Australia today.

In 2008 all Australian state and territory governments signed the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in OHS. They all gave their commitment to work together to develop and implement model work health and safety laws that will make it easier for business across Australia.  They committed to make it easier for business to comply with their work health and safety responsibilities because the requirements will largely be the same regardless of how many states and territories they operate in.

The model work health and safety laws are not significantly different from many current work health and safety laws. Much of it is based on policies that are common to many states and territories.

In order to build on the model laws in reducing the unacceptably high number of serious incident and to set the framework for work health and safety in our nation for the next decade, the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022 is currently being developed.  The Australian Government will launch this document later this year.

The Strategy sets the vision of ‘Healthy safe and productive working lives by 2022’ with clear and achievable targets and priorities for the progression of work health and safety in Australia.

It is currently out for public comment. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you all to have your say on the Strategy that will influence your working life over the next decade.

While the figures I have quoted earlier this evening are alarming, we are not here to dwell tonight on the sadness and immeasurable human, social and emotional costs of work-related death, injury and disease.

We are here to celebrate.  To celebrate our nation’s commitment to work health and safety at work and the steps being taken towards the day where workplaces are free from death injury and disease.

We can do a lot of celebrating of everyone who works hard at improving health and safety standards. 

We celebrate their efforts and dedication. 

They are important for improvements.

But the frustrating truth is that the majority of workers do not open their mouths to speak out about the hazards they are asked to work with on a daily basis. 

I’m not prepared to stand here and pretend that inclusive talk about ‘culture change’ and workplace health and safety systems alone make any difference!

People have long talked about better systems in farming, better education and training as solutions to tractor fatalities.  For 40 years people trumpeted the value of education and training.  But in the end the requirement to fit a rollover protection system reduced tractor rollover fatalities by 70 percent.

The candid truth is that there is a lot of empty talk in health and safety, or even important talk that never does much for workplaces.

We know that 90 percent of Australian workers are in small to medium workplaces -- the majority of which do not have much time nor interest in health and safety. 

They have other issues to worry about.

Therefore many of the people being awarded tonight come into their own and really set an example for all.    

They are the ones that slowly - step by small step - start bringing it home throughout Australian industry that good health and safety standards do matter.

That everyone at work is someone’s child, even if they’re older and grumpier. 

And they deserve the respect and dignity we generally show each other in our interactions.

In our final analysis nothing at work should come before health and safety, nothing! 

As the old saying goes – if you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.

I’d like to mention one more thing, perhaps float an idea that those being celebrated here tonight know already. 

Hazards and risks and the entire approach of risk assessment and risk management generally do not begin to address what really happens at work. 

Beaconsfield gold mine had such a system.  Longford oil and gas refinery had such a system before sections of it blew up in 1998.

It is not the systems or the fancy talk about culture that will save people’s lives. 

It is the daily work of people searching for daily solutions to small daily risks, and trying to nurture a sustainable sense of intolerance to such small daily risks. 

I emphasise the ‘small’ because workplace activities flow from one small thing to another, not on big, fancy canvasses. 

Workplace culture is series of small events that can line up wrong or be forced to not be tolerated if they start aligning dangerously.

The work of these people here is just the work that attends to the hardship of daily work patterns, and in my view, that is where the answer for greater improvements is at. 

The 7th annual Safe Work Australia Awards finalists are testament to how all Australian workplaces can achieve the goal of all workers coming home safely from work each and every day.  

So to this year’s finalists once again I say congratulations and thank you.