We rely on the media to be our messenger, assuming the ‘news’ to be authentic and accurate. In the high-risk construction industry, we trust that workers’ safety is the top priority and expect workplace fatalities and injuries to be spotlighted for public scrutiny.

However, if we read the mainstream media and explore its basis for reporting, we discover corrupted worker safety records and uncover that the horrendous outcomes for workers are heavily censored.

So what do we find when we lift the lid on Australia’s scandalous workplace safety record and throw some light on what is surreptitiously veiled from public view?

Hushed up headlines hide the truth

Five workers were killed at various construction sites across Australia between October 6 and 26, 2016, yet few Australians know about these deaths. Here are some basic facts:

  • On October 6, two men were crushed to death by a concrete panel in Brisbane
  • On October 10, a young woman fell down a ventilation shaft to her death in Perth
  • On October 25, a man fell to his death in Sydney
  • On October 26, a man operating a boom lift was crushed to death in Melbourne.

So we have five fatalities across four states – in just three weeks! For most of us, utter disbelief!

Why in the wake of such news was there no sign of public outrage? Quite simply, limited reporting of these terrible stories in the mass media meant few in our community could learn of the deaths. They could not know to be outraged!

In the case of the two men who died on October 25 and 26, there was negligible news coverage, and as is commonly the case, only scant details were divulged.

Dreamworld deaths

On October 25, the devastating news of the Dreamworld deaths hit the headlines. The story of the four patrons tragically killed on the Thunder River Rapids ride so enthralled the media that it overshadowed the equally tragic deaths of the five construction workers.

Most Australians would have thought the deaths of nine people deplorable, had they known! But extensive Internet research was required to detect the ‘barely there news’ of the Sydney and Melbourne deaths.

Generally Australians have too much to read, too little time and rely on the media for key headlines to frame their synopsis of significant issues. However, contrived communications suppress substantive information and hushed up headlines hide the truth.

Behind the news: Human heartbreak is hidden

Few stories on workplace tragedies make it into the mass media, and ‘reports’ and ‘media releases’ from our governments’ bizarrely branded ‘Safe work’ agencies are dotted with half-truths. What appears is a medley of missing material, misinformation, a melange of claims and contradictions – all melded into a misty maze!

If we attempt to scratch beneath the surface, to make sense of the incomplete selection of statistics, or to fathom the circumstances, causes and consequences concerning individual construction workers’ deaths and injuries, it is a tricky task. Consider a few facts, contradictions and incongruities, and note little of this data is sourced from the traditional media:

  • In 2015, 193 Australian workers died, 74 from asbestos-related diseases (ABC online)
  • By November 8, 148 Australians had died at work in 2016 – 23 on construction sites (Safe Work Australia); an upward trend (111 worker deaths in 2010)
  • In Victoria in 2015-16, there were 31 deaths, 8 deaths in construction and 26,286 workers injured (Worksafe Victoria’s Annual Report)
  • In Victoria, to the end of October 2016, there were 24 workplace fatalities, compared to 12 to same period in 2015 – doubling the number of deaths!
  • Western Australia has the worst fatality rate in the Australia; workers’ deaths increased from 22 in 2014 to 35 in 2015 – 13 additional lives lost!
  • In 2015, 33 Queenslanders died at work, continuing an increasing trend in workplace deaths and injuries!
  • In South Australia 15 workers died in 2015; to date in 2016, 19 workers have died, an increasing trend!
  • In 2009-10, 638,400 workers reported they had incurred a work-related injury in the last 12 months – an injury incidence rate of 57.9 per 1,000 workers (Fatalities in the Workplace’, Allianz)
  • On average, roughly 120,000 workers suffer serious injuries every year, but because contractors are not covered, each year only around 12,000 workers manage to make a claim (Safe Work Australia)

Now to some of the most disquieting of recent so-called ‘accidents.’

Construction’s ‘blame game’ negates culpability

On October 10, whilst working as an unskilled labourer on a Finbar/Hanssen development in Perth, Marianka Heumann fell 13 storeys to her death. This 27-year-old German woman was on a working holiday, her whole life ahead of her. But we sent her home in a body bag for her parents to bury her, inflicting the most unjustifiable burden for any parent to bear.

Evidently the woman undid and put aside her safety harness. Then she sighted something not done, stood on a drum instead of a step ladder, fell down a shaft and died soon after arriving at hospital.

Could this ‘incident’ be an unfortunate accident?

Well, as Clare Amies of Worksafe Victoria noted in a media release, “Every death is preventable.”

Yes, with rigorous work safety procedures in place, and severe penalties for offenders who breach their obligations, workers should be able to go to work, confident that they will return home alive.

There are many disturbing aspects to this story.

First, after Heumann’s death, ‘construction’ recommenced and the concrete pour continued! Inconceivable and morally reprehensible. How could there be such disrespect and unqualified disregard for this young woman’s life lost?

Second, managing director Gerry Hanssen claimed that Heumann’s death was her own fault!

Hanssen explained that Heumann “did impeccable work,” adding that “She was fully inducted” and “knew what she was doing.”

Nonsensically, Hanssen claimed that this unskilled labourer, working high in the sky on a dangerous site was to blame for her own death!

Sadly, this response is perversely predictable. Whenever there is negligence, carelessness, unscrupulous conduct or monstrous criminality, all endemic in building and construction, unfailingly it is the victim who is defamed and blamed – even in death, when they are incapable of voicing any protest.

Woefully, irrationality is rife across the building industry, none more shielded from accountability than in Western Australia. Buttressed by the Government’s Department of Commerce, or the ‘protector of business,’ building companies are afforded bureaucratic protection, and regardless of their iniquitous conduct, their actions are deemed ‘right’!

As a labourer, Heumann was working in one of the highest risk occupational groups within an industry that has the country’s second highest fatality rate. How, when everything is so well hidden, could Heumann have known the real risks?

But her employer knew, and he had the primary duty of care. He had a legal obligation to deliver specialist training on the job and to protect her life through close supervision. These were his minimum responsibilities as managing director.

Alas, it gets worse. Western Australia’s workplace safety record is appalling, with the highest number of workplace deaths in the country! Yet, despite this fact, Commerce Minister Michael Mischin has been quoted as saying the fatality rate was falling, including a 46 per cent reduction in deaths since 2000-01. This is utterly untrue!

But most wicked of all, WA has the weakest penalties for those who breach OH&S laws. In 2016 WA has only prosecuted six companies, and the fines they faced were minuscule. Worse, not one construction company among the six was prosecuted!

Imagine if Heumann had known that she was working in such a dangerous job, in a lawless industry where cowboys do as they please, in the state with the worst fatality rate, and where those who break the law are virtually immune from any prosecution or penalty – all safeguarded by Worksafe WA!

Hanssen should be investigated and made accountable – no ifs, ands, or buts. He is legally liable for both his actions and inactions. But given Worksafe WA’s abysmal record, there is no likelihood of prosecution.

Heumann’s death raises many questions about practices across the construction industry. First, there are concerns around the issue of skills, training and supervision of workers and recruitment of cheap labour from labour hire companies. Second, something must be done about the want of ‘regulation’ and absence of penalties for offenders. No punishment means no deterrence, this doubtless the major contributing factor to our shameful safety record! Third, the policy of protecting ‘business’ interests and ignoring the huge numbers of workers killed, dismembered, disfigured and disabled is indefensible.

The scandalous silence must stop!

The mass media has been manipulated to conceal the troublesome truths about workplace health and safety. It’s time to end the censorship. We have the right to know the realities, to put workers first and to stop all deaths and injuries in Australian workplaces.

Certainly, with the collective support of the disenfranchised, including workers (and consumers) whose lives are destroyed by the construction industry, we can lift the lid higher. If workers, contractors and consumers unite, together with all who have a moral compass in the stakeholder groups (business, government and unions), we can effect change.

We must demand that people take precedence over profiteering. Let’s make it happen!

Reference:  Data used in this articles was provided by WorkSafe.  In 2015, Worksafe reported 35 worker related deaths.