Some 20 years ago the mining industry set a zero target for fatalities and went from being the worst industry to the ‘most improved-performing’ industry when it came to safety.

 Yet, according to SOAS safety expert Emma Bentton, the reality of close to three fatalities a month in the construction industry across Australia rarely raises an eyebrow.

“I believe the construction industry could set the same target as the mining industry and achieve it,” said Bentton. “There’s a business case for safety as well as personal investment.”

With data from Safe Work Australia (the Safe Work Australia Comparative Performance Monitoring Report) revealing that there were 30 workers killed in the construction industry in 2012, and 12,485 injuries, it is time for change.

“The construction industry – along with the agriculture, forestry & fishing industry, the transport, postal & warehousing industry, manufacturing, public administration & safety and health care & social assistance – has been identified as a national priority for safety prevention activities,” Bentton said. “Rather than being held up as an example of what not to do, the construction industry has the opportunity to lead the way and show what can be done when it comes to safety.”

Body Stress and repetitive injury

According to the report, body stressing continues to be the mechanism of injury/disease that accounted for the greatest proportion of claims (41 per cent) although the number of claims due to this mechanism has decreased by 11 per cent since 2008–09.

“Body stressing injuries usually occur from conducting a range of manual tasks every day, repetitive movements or poor posture. In the construction injury, this is mainly due to muscular stress while handling a range of materials and equipment,” said Bentton.

“It’s not well-appreciated that regularly conducting strenuous manual tasks, such as heavy lifting or carrying, results in a strong probability of suffering body stressing injuries. Employees who are injured at work can experience long periods of incapacity, leading to time off work and financial pressures. It can be a very stressful experience.”

SOAS recommends workers minimise the risks of body stressing injuries such as sprains and strains by:

  • demonstrating good posture
  • following safety protocol
  • wearing the right gear, such as ergonomic back supports

Worker education

The data also revealed that while the number of field inspections decreased, the number of reactive inspections increased. This means more complaints were being made, or more requests for safety inspections had been lodged. Bentton said this was due to a more educated workforce.

“If your workers aren’t satisfied with your work, health and safety protocols they are not going to keep quiet,” she said. “They won’t accept the risk and will alert authorities if they believe their employer is not doing the right thing. This can have ongoing business productivity issues, so the best approach is to be proactive with your safety planning.”

This includes ensuring all safe work method statements (SWMS) are personalised, inducted, specific to different construction trades, and specific to the site being worked.

Bentton said the low cost of being compliant under the law more than outweighs the potential fines that can be levied. Government WHS inspectors have now been given the power to issue on the spot fines for small breaches such as:

  • not having an effective Safe Work Method Statement in place, or a collection of Safe Work Method Statements
  • not stopping work if the work is not being carried out in accordance with the safe work method statement, and not preparing a work health and safety management plan

For serious offences where workers are at risk of death or serious injury, businesses can be prosecuted and fined up to a maximum of $3 million. Persons conducting a business or undertaking, or company officers can be fined up to $600,000 or face five years in jail and individual employees can be fined up to $300,000 for negligence.

Compliance is not as difficult, expensive or onerous as one might expect. SOAS Safety System Apps can be purchased at the Apple Store or Google Play and take a little as 15 minutes to build, personalise and print/email out. With so many trades ‘living’ on their smartphones, it’s an effective solution that supports compliance whilst also making paperwork management easy.

“Good habits with SWMSs could – most importantly – save a life. SWMSs have saved businesses from bankruptcy following site injuries and fatalities, because the contractor has been able to demonstrate due diligence,” Bentton said. “Could your business withstand a fine in the millions?”