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.
  • At the risk of being beaten to death with a tirade of abuse I find the need to ask one question.
    I am only going by what you have reported, (and I’m not excusing the company for continuing working after the incident) however, If in fact she was fully inducted, knew what she was doing, had a safety harness provided and proper step ladder and then she in fact undid and put aside her safety harness, stood on a drum instead of a step ladder, fell down a shaft and died, can I ask what more could have been done by the employer?. I’m not making light of her death, I’m asking what more could have been done to prevent this situation with the benefit of hindsight and to learn from this?

    • The proper way to view risk as recommended by SafeWork Australia and every other state based work safety authority is to firstly seek to eliminate the hazard that is causing risk. If this is not possible then a heirachy of control measures should be implemented. Devices such as fall arrest/body harness are considered to be PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and are fundamentally seen as a measure of last resort for all the reasons that revolve around the fact that humans (inducted or otherwise) cannot and should not be relied upon to not do things that short circuit this least effective safety control measure. If there is an opening you could fall through, cover it and secure the cover so it can only be removed by a site supervisor. Barricade it. Block it off. Managers have the primary duty of care to manage everything including the potential for a lapse in concentration or other seemingly 'stupid' things that a worker may or may not do bar wilful self harm.
      It is certainly much cheaper for the construction manager to put a safety regime in place that relies entirely on workers use of PPE but it is always viewed (and rightfully so) post accident/incident as having been the least reliable risk control measure in nearly every circumstance.

  • The Construction Industry is a system , not a person with morals & judgement . Until workers take PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for their own safety . NOTHING WILL CHANGE . On my jobs I tell every one that comes on site , Safety is up to them , If your boss tell you to do something & you feel it is danger est don`t do it , & let me know . If you see someone doing something stupid , report it to me . Fining anyone after the event is GREED . If you find anyone not having their MIND on the job send them off site to get it . When on site GET YOUR GAUGE ON TEN . Regards A 69 yr old Builder .

  • Well researched Anne,.. it must have been quite an effort.

    It is quite alarming to know that workers are becoming less safe in the workplace, when the roads are now safer thanks to the huge effort by governments and police vastly reducing the toll from the days of 'Declare war on 1064'.

  • Thanks, Paul. The point here is that you can evidently get a White Card online for a fee of $30.00. No basic training required for what is very high-risk work in one of the most high-risk industries. In order to keep workers safe, they need proper training and good supervision. In this case, it seems that the young woman was trying to do her best work; after taking off the harness, she saw something she had missed and just did it – unthinking or not sufficiently wise. Add together Youth, Unskilled and Inexperienced – a recipe for not realizing the implications – and it only takes a few seconds to be fatal. And remember there are virtually no penalties for companies, and in the few cases where there are, it is almost never the person at the top called to account – not the Director, Manager, etc. At the end of the day, such deaths are all preventable, but with way too many carrots and not one stick, those responsible with a duty of care, if not inclined to care have no incentive to meet their obligations. There must be penalties, and tough ones or we will continue to clock up fatalities we should not. And also don't forget all those who are seriously impaired and disabled.
    The statistics available are incomplete, but even so, super staggering. As for the construction industry, its infamous for non-compliance across the board. Imagine that working holiday visas are for young people to be able to holiday and earn some money in hospitality, fruit picking and the like. NOT in construction, where knowing what you are doing, having experience and being supervised closely when you do not, is essential. Sadly, I think people matter, but in the world of easy profits and mega margins, for too many, money matters much more!

    • Sorry Anne, but all the penalties in the world don't mean a thing when an individual person make the individual choice to unbuckle their safety harness and climb up a drum alongside a 13 storey drop.

      The statement 'every death is preventable' is certainly true. This particular death would have been prevented had the employee been wearing her harness, or had she obtained a proper climbing apparatus, but she made the active choice to disregard the proper procedure and unfortunately she paid the ultimate price.

      To try to somehow place the responsibility on the builder (in effect, you are basically accusing the builder of negligent homicide) is completely unfair.

  • Anne's point about the 'white card' an interesting one. Many companies offer you the opportunity to simply download and print all the notes and tests online. No wonder we have cases of people who don't even understand English getting neighbors or friends to do it for them. It is a big concern.

  • This is an enlightening article, not least because it makes me think how rarely workplace deaths and cases of serious injury are in the news. If you have young people, or older people from Labour Hire companies employed because they are cheap, and cheap because they are unskilled, and then they are given no or little training, there are going to be problems. This is not a way of preventing harm to people. In other industries, fro example the food industry there are tight controls, regular and real checks and penalties are imposed quite strictly.
    It makes me wonder why it is that in construction those who fail in their responsibilities, be it building defective buildings or unsafe buildings, causing fires, using dangerous and banned products like asbestos, can keep on doing this and they are never to blame. So it seems with peoples lives and OH&S. In construction deaths and injuries are blamed on the workers and those responsible for preventing harm are allowed to be 'not at fault'. I agree with Anne. If this young woman had known the real risks, right at the beginning of her adult life, she would not have ever put up her hand to work on high-rise buildings. Who would take the chance if they knew the danger? It all happens in a split second. Wrong footing, a fall and a life gone. Life is too important for us not to stop and reflect. How is it that companies can so easily be off the hook and once again there is no blame. It is all passed off as the victims fault. We must start to sit up and take notice.

  • Great article. Safe place verses safe person is a no brainer, admittingly you have to do both. Education and enforcement worked well for seat belts. Pity there is no will by the often poorly resourced regulators. You don't get an even playing field and companies that are taking safety seriously don't get the work.

  • Working in Industry can be very dangerous. The principals of work safety have grown out of the manufacturing industry (where traditionally there is a full time trained and stable work force. New workers are carefully watched and the dangers are explained). and the construction industry where an apprentice lasted for four years and people worked in closely knit teams where everybody watched each others backs and warned each other of the dangers. With the creation of the construction boom (I gather there are now more cranes operating on the east coast of Australia than in the United States Of Australia these traditional structures no longer apply and the government regulators despite being fully aware of the changing dynamic have failed to do the job that they are paid to do. Instead, as is par for the course, they will wait until a human disaster stares them in the face and then they will use the minimalistic approach to address the problem. Anyone who has worked in industry knows that when you increase production you need more labour, when that labour enters the work environment and is not unto speed with its understanding of the dangers within the environment, that work environment will become more dangerous for everybody.The responsibility for addressing the problem lies with the government regulators and industry, not the unsuspecting worker. In a world where the fiduciary obligation of professionals has been corrupted by the mighty dollar the inevitable will occur, that is an increase in deaths and injuries at work. (Mechanical Engineer).

  • I strongly agree with Anne. The case of this young backpacker is tragic and it should not have happened. Much more must be done to protect the lives of all who work in this dangerous industry.

    My husband worked as a carpenter until he retired. A few years back he was seriously injured. He was working on a commercial site and as he tried to pull down a large pane of glass, it broke and sliced through his arm. It was very close to the arteries and had it been any closer he would have lost the use of his arm. This was not his fault. He really should have had a worker assist him and this would have allowed the other worker to help succor the glass and prevent the injury. This is what happens when management cuts corners – all in the name of greater profit. And who cares about the workers?

    It is well known in the industry that it is profit driven with little thought or worry for the health or safety of those who do all the work. It is absoltely wicked that people's lives are of so little value in the big picture.

  • The UK introduced The Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007. Work place deaths, especially those on construction sites, ceased almost overnight. It's amazing how employee safety replaces maximisation of profits when the company's senior management face imprisonment and an unlimited fine. I wonder why Worksafe isn't pressing for the same legislation?

  • The statistics quoted in this article are truly alarming and they lead me to think that there is definitely something wrong somewhere. i have seen the advertising put out by Worksafe where the onus is put on the worker to say whether they will do a job or not, a job that is obviously unsafe. If a person wants to keep their job, they are not going to want to upset employers by not wanting to follow directions. Other Worksafe ads I have seen, directed at companies doing the wrong thing, that they will be caught and fined. Sounds good but the above article would seem to indicate that the ads are not making much of an impact. Are the fines hefty to really bring the safety message home? Are the penalties carried out? How many workers have to be injured or die before penalties are enforced ? and how many Worksafe inspectors are actually employed to go to construction sites and check on practices on the ground. Rigorous work safety procedures and regulation need to be enforced and further followed up on to ensure workers safety, the peace of mind of their families as well as the smooth operation of construction companies.

  • Even as someone who keeps an ear out for news in the building and construction industry I did not hear of all these deaths. The mainstream media is heavily sanitised and censored, focussing on only the topics which vested interests may profit from. We can easily see why the true state of the building and construction industry is not broadcast to the general public. We need people like Anne and others who will speak out to continue to push the boundaries and lift the lid further!

  • Thank you Anne for bringing this to our attention. It seems the media have chosen to ignore or downplay the reality of the risk to lives in the workplace generally, and also in the dangerous construction industry. The number of needless deaths concerns me greatly. I agree with Clare Amies that "every death is preventable". So why are the number of deaths trending upwards? From 111 in 2010 to 193 in 2015! Then we had the Dreamworld tragedy shining the light on the theme park industry. It seems that the basic cause is self-evident. There is almost no punishment. We all know without deterrence measures there is nothing to discourage bad conduct. But in this case, where people's lives are at stake, there must be accountability and strong penalties. If you murder someone, it is called criminal and the penalty is a long prison term. It's time to consider changes and quickly so that we prevent more unnecessary deaths and the distress to the families of those who lose their loved ones.

  • I have worked in the construction industry; Dogging cranes and roofing for most of the past fifteen or more years. I have woked in mines construction, underground and roofing at some pretty scary heights. I have worked for some large companies and have noticed a trend which is very concerning.
    I have noticed that (especially on big jobs), that safety is pushed extremely hard at the beginning of the job by the companies contracted to complete work. As deadlines get closer, safety slowly starts to take a back seat. I would love to see some research and some figures calculated to see at what stage of these large projects accidents and fatalities are actually occuring. My belief is that a mojority of them occur towards the end of a projects deadline.
    Please feel free to offer feedback.
    Who would be the agency to approach to see these figures if they have been researched ?

  • Good work, Anne. These statistics are alarming and these figures are only the tip of the iceberg. How many unreported incidents are occuring in other industries, such as itinerant or exploited workers in the agricultural, hospitality or retail sectors. I personally know two people in the retail industry who were struck on the head at work this year, and both were sent home without any medical advice or assesment. It is not good enough that all these corporations are "fudging" the figures and it is an absolute travesty that the "regulators" and departments tasked with ensuring safety at work seem to be more about protecting the businesses involved, rather than protecting us as workers/taxpayers.

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