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Speech: Industrial deaths

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 17 Oct 2018

I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak on the report on the inquiry into the prevention, investigation and prosecution of industrial deaths in Australia. This inquiry was much needed because the safety of our workers is of utmost importance. We really must have zero tolerance for work related deaths. I started my working life as a civil and structural engineer, so I do know firsthand the dangers that lurk on construction sites, which are among the deadliest sites for workers. There is absolutely no excuse for employers to not provide a safe workplace and there should be zero tolerance for negligent behaviour on worksites. It is quite apt, I must say, that the committee is handing down its report during National Safe Work Month, but, of course, safety should be a priority not just in October but every single day.

The Australian Greens do welcome the inquiry and support the recommendations made by the committee. Most importantly, this report is a move towards creating a new offence for industrial manslaughter, which has long been Greens policy. Grieving families and friends have long demanded this change, and it gives me hope when I see the other political parties also becoming receptive to this. As a general principle, the Greens have a preference for a model that puts industrial manslaughter into the Crimes Act. But, through this inquiry, I also note the broad support for the Queensland model, and the Greens welcome moves to have this extended throughout Australia.

Another very important aspect of this issue is how industrial deaths are actually defined. The definition needs to be broadened to include all work related deaths, not just traumatic fatalities. This includes, in particular, deaths caused by work related diseases, which the recommendations address, and suicides should also be covered. This would much more accurately reflect the impact on workers and would allow their families to access appropriate remedies. Consideration of workers who die by suicide, particularly after poor handling of compensation claims, is also currently inadequate and should be addressed in any new reforms.

Further, there is also a very strong case for the collection of data and statistics regarding industrial deaths. The statistics we get from Safe Work Australia, as has been said earlier, do not accurately reflect the scale of work related deaths that actually occur in Australia. The Australian Council of Trade Unions raised these concerns with the committee, saying the current state of our data continues to result in an underestimation of the true extent of work related deaths, including those arising from work related diseases. The fact of the matter is that any work related death should not only be counted but also be completely unacceptable.

With respect to recommendation 31 regarding the establishment of pro bono legal assistance to families during coronial inquests, we think this should be extended to include 'and any other assistance deemed necessary'. We are aware of cases where even accessing inquests has been particularly difficult, because of financial constraints, for example.

This inquiry was nearing its end when I joined the Senate. But, in my brief participation in the inquiry, I met with Ms Robyn Colson, whose 24-year-old son, David James Colson, was killed in a workplace incident on 8 October 2007. This month marks 11 years since Ms Colson lost her son—a tragedy, the scale of which, of course, is unimaginable to anyone who has not gone through something like this. David was an abalone diver in Tasmania. However, on this particular day, he was working as a deckhand for another abalone diver. Ms Colson told us at the inquiry hearing:

The boat he was working on sank and he swam for 5½ hours before dying of hypothermia. He was a wonderful person who did not deserve to have his life stolen from him. Losing a child this way is unlike any other type of grief and it is permanent. A part of our soul is missing. We live a divided life: the time before the workplace accident and the time after.

This is heartbreaking, but what happened next didn't make it any easier on the Colson family. The coronial inquest into David's death took so long that the family could never bring criminal charges, as the limitation period for prosecutions had expired. This is quite an unacceptable situation and further highlights the inadequacy of our work health and safety laws. Other families also spoke about coronial inquests taking a long time and extending their anguish, with no answers at hand and no-one held responsible.

I do hope the government adopts all the recommendations of this report, but, more importantly, that they implement them speedily and act on them. The friends and families of people whose loved ones have suffered industrial deaths want the government to make strong reforms and make them now. Some of them are here today in this chamber, and I welcome them here. It was my absolute privilege to meet them earlier this afternoon, and I thank them for the immense amount of courage and strength that they have shown to push for workplace safety reforms so that no-one else has to go through the trauma and heartbreak that they have.

For the families, friends and loved ones of those people who have been killed at work or who have died as a result of workplace related disease and suicide, the heartbreak, pain and anguish are lifelong realities. This inquiry and the resulting recommendations are a welcome step in fixing our laws. It is also important that adequate funding and resources are directed towards work health and safety regulators, who can then ensure compliance and allow for more effective preventative measures to be put in place, because our aim should be absolutely zero work related deaths. Every worker has a right to a safe workplace, and they deserve to come back home safe, healthy and well from work.

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