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Everyone's a winner in a safe workplace

Most Australians would agree that safety in the workplace is vital.

For Dr John Buchanan, who directs Sydney University’s Workplace Research Centre, this reflects our level of social development.

“There are two basic aspects of workplace safety; ethics and productivity, he says.

“As a society matures, greater emphasis is given to both the quality and the value of life.

“In Australia this is now at a very high level. People today have a legitimate right to expect minimal hazards in their workplace. It is an index of progress and civilization.”

Improving our workplace safety has been a priority for the Federal Government for the past six years.

This year the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announced plans for a national, unified OHS system.

Workplace Relations Ministers have agreed to replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC) with a new, stronger body, Safe Work Australia (SWA) funded by the Commonwealth, states and territories, which will develop a national OHS policy.

Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard said SWA would help end
“complex and costly inconsistencies in safety and workers compensation laws across Australia,” … which place “some workers at risk of poorer safety standards than their counterparts in other states.” (The Age)

More action is also needed from the workplace itself to reduce our unacceptable employee death rate, up by 16 percent since 2004.

Although Australia ranks among the top five countries in reducing compensated fatalities, with a 36 percent decrease between 1996 and 2005, more than 140 000 employees are seriously injured at work every year and more than 300 die from work-related injuries, at an estimated annual cost to the economy of $34 billion, says Julia Gillard.

So why is this happening?

John Buchanan thinks one cause is the outdated, and mistaken, perception that good safety practices represent a non-essential cost that reduces profit.

“In the past, employers and workers sometimes ignored known hazards – such as
in the mining industry – in the interests of short-term cost savings and quick profits. This ultimately proved far more costly than applying the right protective measures in the first place. Comparable risk factors today are employee overload and extended working hours that may produce short-term gains, but can lead fatigued workers to cut corners on good safety practice. That’s counter-productive in the long term.”

The slogan chosen by National Safe Work Australia Week 2008, in October, Safety is
Everybody’s Business, highlighted the fact that workplace safety is a team effort.

It only succeeds if all stakeholders – government, employers, workers and also personal protective equipment (PPE) suppliers – fully meet their responsibilities under current industry guidelines.

By law, employers must provide all workers with safe working conditions and equipment, and appropriate PPE, and employees are required to work safely, and use equipment and PPE correctly.

PPE suppliers’ role in maintaining workplace safety is particularly critical.

“Users lives may depend on their protective equipment”, says Benice Deal, of Sperian Protection Australia.

“PPE in Australia must fully comply with the toughest and latest standards. It has to be 100 per cent effective, durable and comfortable, allowing optimal freedom of movement, and above all, reliable.”

John Buchanan agrees. “We know that good safety practices actually have direct positive effects on production and performance”, he says.

Perhaps when this message finally reaches everyone in the workplace our annual fatality figures will start moving towards zero.