A plentiful supply of ‘safe work’ propaganda is pumped out to the Australian public each year.

It gives the impression that going to work is relatively ‘safe’ and that workers’ health and safety is a major concern to our caring governments. However, such beliefs belie the facts. Public policy on ‘safe work’ was contrived for the benefit of protecting business, but at the very great expense of workers’ lives. The scheme simulated to keep workers ‘safe’ officially sanctioned as the ‘safe work’ swindle!

Australian workplaces are far from safe, and going to work poses perilous risks to the health and safety of around 600,000 Australian workers every year. Contemplate the cumulative effect; in the last 10 years, millions of people have been forever harmed. Nonetheless, few Australians could be aware of our shameful workplace safety record, the risky reality of many workplaces, or the horrendous harm visited upon those fated to be victims. Even fewer would know that ‘no control’ is government policy in order to safeguard business. This very ‘top-secret’!

The principal problem is ‘truthiness.’ Trying to find the facts involves probing the limited information available, detangling the mostly true from the mostly false, tallying up the half-truths disclosed as legitimate statistics, and finally configuring in the mass of material deemed ‘never to be released.’ Most puzzle pieces now assembled, the terrifying truths can be revealed.

The sub-rosa signpost

The official intentions of the ‘safe work’ scam can be spotted in the government’s phoney promotions. Worksafe Victoria is an exemplar. In 2015, it flagged a new signpost in resuming its old Worksafe moniker (not WorkCover), the ‘safe’ publicizing a more positive image. Setting out to feign a fresh face for the same old agency, in February 2016 CEO Clare Amies assured that the heat was now back on business. So had it been ‘off’ business? Unlikely! This was not a slip up, but rather the classic ploy signaling pretence of a tougher approach!

Then Amies warned employers to beware: “Our inspectors are out there!” However, she neglected to say ‘inspectors out there’ means ‘informing and advising,’ and notably that Worksafe policy dictates almost no prosecutions and minuscule penalties.

She also failed to mention the menacing dangers of Victoria’s real work sites, the lives shattered and the families destroyed. Significantly, Amies’ assertions would provide no solace to the 26,286 Victorians who in 2015 were seriously injured (though there were 90,000 claims according the the Victorian Ombudsman in 2016), nor offer reassurance to those who lost their loved ones (31 Victorian families), or those denied compensation, or the many thousands slowly dying from work-related diseases.

The ‘safety for workers’ infomercials offer further insight. They’re super slick, but offer no stats, no stories, no substantive data and no reference to the 24 Victorians killed this year. Currently screening on TV is a typical advert: “If your workers aren’t safe, neither are you!” Is this to frighten employers or manufactured to mislead?

Scrutiny of the ‘safe work’ scheme clearly confirms the latter. All Worksafe agencies have a singular commitment: ‘Keep business safe.’ As for the suggestion of punishment, the stated ‘prevention’ policy precludes penalizing offenders in more than 99.5 per cent of cases. Incongruously, ‘prevention’ is actually aimed at workers – those who are subjected to unsafe workplaces and punished by having their WorkCover claims refused. The subterfuge is styled to block and bar, foil and frustrate, delay and ultimately deny workers’ safety. The ‘work safe’ signposts are a smoke screen to disguise the sub-rosa truth!

The nasty news

If we check some of the construction industry’s truths, they are depressing:

  • Construction workers comprise the third most dangerous occupational group, with 182 construction workers killed at work between 2008/09 and 2012/13 (Safe Work Australia)
  • Safe Work Australia informs that on average, 12,600 construction workers make a Work Cover claim each year, but many do not claim, and others don’t qualify to claim
  • Some 190 construction workers commit suicide each year – one suicide every two days! (ABC)
  • Australia has the second highest mesothelioma death rate in the world, with 14 deaths a week resulting from exposure to asbestos
  • Between 2014 and 2021, mesothelioma deaths are expected to rise to 18,000 (Australian Government Institute of Health and Welfare)
  • According to SafeWork NSW, “over the past three years around 25,000 workers were injured on NSW construction sites because of unsafe work practices, twenty three were killed and more than 1,700 have been left permanently disabled.”

Where have all the people gone?

The news via the mainstream media is poor and often inaccurate. What it selects and what it rejects as ‘newsworthy’ is telling. On the confronting realities of workers’ deaths, injuries and disease, little is featured and the shattered lives of ‘real’ victims are veiled!

In 2015, 196 Australian workers died at work. To date, the total for 2016 is 157. An average of 728 workers die each year from asbestos disease, chiefly construction workers. Then add the silent suicide toll. But who would know? Take a crack at finding the correct statistics – Safe Work Australia states that on average there are 120,000 Work Cover claims a year (Australian Workers’ Compensation Statistics 2013-14), yet the Victorian Ombudsman states that in Victoria alone there are 90,000 claims a year. Confusing!

Try to find any of the horror stories of the seriously injured and permanently incapacitated – spinal injuries, brain dead or dismembered – or stories of the families of the deceased. No matter the efforts, or requests to regulators, your efforts will be for nought. All stories are buried. Nowhere disclosed publicly.

The states have different methods of recording. Some fatalities are recorded and others are not No suicides are counted. And only those who qualify to make serious injury claims and manage to have them accepted are ‘counted.’ Those listed are as claim statistics, not people. The real stories of the injured, struggling to survive financially, physically and emotionally, including those who end up dying, remain totally hidden.

Similarly, the incalculable number of workers repeatedly compelled to beg for compensation, forced over years to conciliation 20 or 30 times to fight for their legal right. Many never receive proper compensation, everyone closeted away into ‘confidential’ files. Conspicuous by their absence are the 65 per cent of workers not recorded anywhere. Excluded, they have been entirely eliminated. Thus, the tragedy of millions of real workers has been wiped out. So where have the people gone?

Light touch regulation

Although officials have largely suppressed the shocking realities of workers’ lives, the cause is identifiable. It is dubbed “the deregulation agenda,” and its objective is to protect business. Spun as ‘light touch’ regulation, it would be more accurate to say it’s ‘no regulation.’

Without shame, SafeWork NSW speaks for the so-called ‘regulators’ in its enforcement/prosecution policy: “Prosecutions through the courts are a last resort for us, and only carried out in the most serious cases.”

True to its word, to August this year it listed precisely 18 prosecutions!

So what do our ‘regulators’ do? In short, not much! Bureaucratic ‘regulatory business’ involves spending mega millions of dollars on advertising and creating media releases to fool workers and the public into thinking that workplace safety is satisfactory. Some time is assigned to what is branded business liaison on ‘prevention’ – visits to inform, seminars to ‘educate’ and gala events to confer awards. Yes ‘educating’ the already highly educated companies who understand the ‘no consequences’ rule. The ‘enforcement’ policy is “increasing awareness” and “encouraging employers to improve safety” (Worksafe Vic Annual Report 2015-16). In terms of action, Worksafe Victoria issued an astonishing 271 improvement notices for legal breaches, but no penalties apply.

By far however, officials devote most of their time to getting rid of difficult people, primarily those seriously injured who should legally be paid compensation. This requires ever more staff. Take Worksafe Vic, a self-proclaimed ‘business’ with two commercial arms: prevention and claims. With around 800 employees, it has recently employed another 60 staff.

On the claims side, there were evidently 90,000 claims in 2015/16, with Worksafe Vic managing to get 80 per cent of workers back to work within six months. However, its Annual Report omits to detail its trickery or how it dealt with the other 20 per cent of claims.

Thank goodness for the Ombudsman who detailed its “bad behaviour” (Investigation into Worksafe Oversight, September 2016). In 20 per cent of claims, outsourced to private insurance agents via contracts with Worksafe, the agents received financial rewards for coercing workers to return to work or terminating claims. Here’s one astounding email from an agent to a manager in relation to a 130-week termination: “Knock your socks off and terminate away!”

The Ombudsman explained precisely: “In effect, we found cases in which agents were working the system to delay and deny seriously injured workers the financial compensation to which they were entitled.”

Furthermore, this investigation uncovered that 75 per cent of the 130-week terminations by agents were overturned by the courts – to increase insurance profits.

The law of no liability

As with all things construction, the ‘safety system’ is shored up by the law of no liability. Worksafe WA’s record is noteworthy here. Last year it handed out 12,000 notices, yet none resulted in penalties. Most germane that these 12,000 examples expose business’ contempt in defiance of legal compliance. Their dogged determination to ignore the law is unsurprising – obviously they get it. The law of no liability assures their safety.

If we look at prosecutions as a ‘preventative’ stratagem, we find that less than 0.5 per cent of wrongdoers, including the serial reprobates in the ranks, are ever prosecuted.

A review of prosecutions across the various states reveals an infinitesimal number, six to 100 annually, with farcical fines. And in the case of workers’ deaths, there’s almost never any prosecution. Even exposing workers to asbestos commonly elicits a tiny $2,000 fine. Logically, rules are worthless unless there is punishment, and severe penalties applied. To levy no punishment sends a strong ‘unsafety’ message, and as for deterrence, this null and void.

Viewed as a commercial commodity, their lives ruled worthless, workers’ safety was surrendered long ago. Whether negligence, industrial manslaughter or murder, the law of no liability makes all lawbreakers legitimately safe. In the UK, legislation was introduced in 2007 to ensure that corporate employers could be properly prosecuted. It has worked. The safety record there improved immediately because under criminal law jail time became a real risk.

When construction workers go to work each day, they are seriously imperilled. Too many will never return home, many will live miserable lives and others will later be driven to end their own lives. It’s time to stop the lies, to bring in the rule of law and put an end to contaminated and dangerous workplaces.

We need to elevate the value of Australian workers’ lives, their families and our community. The first step is to terminate the spurious ‘safe work’ swindle.