Union campaigns for workplace health and safety

Throughout our history, Australian Unions have always campaigned against unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and advocated for the strictest laws possible to ensure that workers are going home in good health.

While this may seem like common sense, it has been far from a trouble-free process to achieve the level of Occupational Health and Safety cover we currently have. Even today, reforms are needed to make work as safe and healthy as possible. This includes managing previously neglected risks to health and safety that arise from the design, planning, organisation and management of work, such as work intensification, job insecurity and violence and harassment (known as ‘psychosocial risks’); and addressing the psychological as well as physical harm caused by failure to manage risks at work.

Our current campaign to improve health and safety protections stands in a long tradition of union activism to make sure workers are as safe and healthy as possible in the work that they do.

 

Origins of workplace safety reform

In the nineteenth century, perceptions of what constituted workplace health and safety were completely different to today. It was not uncommon for large numbers of workers to labour in factories with poor ventilation, excessive heat, and with machines that had no safety guards.

There were initially very few regulations and legislative structures governing workplace health and safety. The colonies of Australia largely adopted provisions of the British health and safety legislation of the time. These Acts contained only the most perfunctory protections for workers and were often side-stepped by employers and under-policed by inspectors.[1] Governments and employers simply weren’t too concerned with the safety of workers in the workplace.

Unsurprisingly then, it largely fell to unions (and some progressive reformers) to push for better standards of safety and protection at work. The growth of union organisation and strike action taken by miners in the Newcastle area led to the first recognisable health and safety act being introduced in New South Wales in 1854.[2]

From 1872 seamen’s unions were formed across Australia, raising the issue of safety onboard vessels. These unions organised campaigns to defend sailors who refused to sail on unseaworthy ships, pushed for better safety measures, and sent deputations to parliament asking for stricter protective laws.[3]

Gradually, the significance of workplace safety to workers gained more attention. Victoria introduced statutory workplace protections in the first Factory Act in 1873. This focused on limiting the hours women could work, as well as enforcing health regulations around warmth, ventilation, and sanitation.

Even these minimal standards were never seriously enforced. The law proved easy for employers to circumvent.[4] Inspectors were reluctant to prosecute, and courts were equally reluctant to punish recalcitrant employers.[5]

From the 1880s, work health and safety started to be taken up by more and more unions as a major issue.[6] From 1882-1883 women workers in the Melbourne clothing industry launched a protracted strike when employers sought to impose reduced pay and standards on them. Over the course of the action unsafe and unhealthy working conditions in the industry were brought to public attention. This was further enhanced by the foundation of the Tailoresses Union to represent these workers.[7]

This publicity helped prompt a Royal Commission on standards in Victoria’s factories which in turn led to the legislation of the Factories and Shops Act 1885. This new Act included provisions for cleanliness, sanitation, adequate working space, and safeguards for dangerous machinery.[8]

Similar legislation was passed in NSW, South Australia, and Queensland in the 1890s.[9] Tasmania and Western Australia passed their versions in the 1900s.[10] These Acts were, in many cases, the products of the rise of Labor Parties in the colonies/states which traded their support for liberal governments for such legislative changes.[11] At this time, workers’ compensation acts also began to be introduced in the colonies, based on the UK’s Employers’ Liability Act.[12]

 

Workplace safety after Federation

At the time of Federation, Australia had a patchwork of ad hoc and disconnected laws that followed British precedent. These standards sought to prevent physical injury from physical workplace hazards as identified. They did not include training and education, consultation, or ongoing monitoring.[13] Most notably workers, who were most likely to be affected by unsafe and unhealthy workplaces, had no powers to shape health and safety standards and regulations.[14]

The changes that were made were reactive to the discovery of specific problems at individual sites.[15] This led to gaps and inconsistencies in workplace protection. This was only exacerbated after Australia’s Federation in 1901 when the colonies became states. The Australian constitution did not grant the Commonwealth Government specific powers in this area, meaning workplace safety was the preserve of the state governments. [16] As a result, until the mid-1980s workplace health and safety remained largely a state matter with little to no federal influence or direction.[17]

While unions continued to raise issues around workplace safety, they largely entrusted governments to conduct the inspectoral and regulatory work. The main exceptions could be found in those industries with notorious records of workplace injury and deaths-on-site where unions were more regularly active: mining, dock work, and construction.[18]

By the 1950s and 1960s individual unions began to campaign around industry-specific workplace health and safety issues – such as the Boilermakers’ campaign through the 1950s and 1960s on the dangers of industrial noise, industrial fumes, and asbestos dust.[19]

In the 1970s workplace health and safety became an increasingly important industrial issue for unions. This included the growing awareness and campaigns around asbestos and its effects on workers.[20] But unions campaigned more widely to gain significant improvements in health and safety in areas many take for granted today. This includes gaining meal and rest breaks, accident pay, weight restrictions on lifting, protective clothing regulations, and improved conditions in mines.[21]

Health and safety standards were increasingly negotiated into workplace agreements by unions.[22] It was, for instance, written into the Awards of the Waterside Workers’ Federation that union delegates could stop work on an unsafe job.[23]

In 1977 community and health workers, many with experience of working in women’s health centres, opened a Workers Health Centre in Sydney, with the financial backing of a number of unions.[24] The first two full-time union workplace health and safety officers were appointed in 1979.[25]

In 1979, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) also adopted its first comprehensive occupational health and safety policy.[26] This policy was significant in that it established that workplace health and safety was, in the eyes of the movement, a legitimate bargaining issue, expanding bargaining from the traditional economic domain to all aspects of the working experience.[27]

Union action raised awareness of health and safety, but this was further facilitated by a growing consciousness elsewhere in the world of the significance of these issues.

This was best represented in the Robens Report in Britain, the most far-reaching report into occupational health and safety the country had undertaken. The Report recognised the need for wholesale reform of the British system, emphasising the importance of a systematic, preventative, risk management approach to health and safety, implemented through participation and consultation between workers and management, with regulators empowered to issue sanctions and prosecute for breaches (referred to by Robens as ‘self-regulation’).[28]

There is a broad body of evidence to suggest that the meaningful participation of workers, particularly through health and safety representatives, is crucial to ensure safe and healthy workplaces. The Robens model of regulation relies on those with relevant knowledge and expertise participating effectively in work health and safety matters.

New workplace health and safety legislation influenced by the Robens Report was introduced in Australia. The first legislation was in South Australia in 1972, followed by Tasmania in 1977, and Victoria in 1981.[29]

 

Occupational Health and Safety Reform in the 1980s

These changes had created a whole new momentum for further action on health and safety in the 1980s. In a demonstration of the growing seriousness with which the union movement was treating these issues, the ACTU and Victorian Trades Hall Council jointly established an Occupational Health and Safety Unit in 1981 to coordinate these activities amongst union members.[30]

This was soon followed by the first comprehensive health and safety industrial agreements being negotiated. These agreements were concentrated in Victoria and were the product of the strong union campaign in the state for workplace health and safety reform. This campaigning influenced the actions of the Cain Labor government, elected in 1982 (ending 27 years of conservative rule).

The first comprehensive health and safety agreement was negotiated at the Williamstown Naval Dockyard in 1982.[31] This included the development of new safety standards for the stripping of asbestos from ships.[32] This was followed by a similarly far-reaching agreement in 1983 at the State Electricity Commission of Victoria.[33] In 1984 a major private sector agreement was reached with the Comeng plant in Dandenong, Victoria.[34]

These agreements were particularly significant for the provisions within them that actively involved workers at these sites in the process of monitoring potential issues and ensuring a healthy workplace. In-line with union demands, workers were involved in ensuring the health and safety of employees in  workplaces – not just reacting to incidents that had occurred, but trying to actively prevent such incidents happening in the first place.

This included stipulations that the workforce receive all relevant information on health and safety matters, be given time off for work health and safety training, have the right to be consulted before new machines were introduced that might affect safety and health, as well as the right for union representatives to inspect the workplace at anytime and shut down unsafe or unhealthy working practices.[35]

This aspect of the agreements reflected the emphasis unions were placing on worker-involvement in regulating and enforcing work health and safety.[36] The election of supportive state Labor governments which understood the significance of these issues bolstered the cause of workplace safety reform in the 1980s.

Such attitudes influenced the Act passed in New South Wales in 1983, which began to include workers in this process through the creation of workplace health and safety committees and the instituting of Health and Safety Committees in some workplaces.[37]

This was soon followed by the Victorian Parliament passing the most substantive workplace health and safety Act yet seen in 1985, considered to be ‘the most progressive legislation of its kind in Australia at the time.[38]

The Cain government had been seeking to push union-backed workplace health and safety bills through the parliament since 1982, but when a quirk in the electoral process led to a short-lived Labor majority in the upper chamber, the bill soon became law. This was against the avid opposition of the Liberal Party which argued that the comprehensive reforms would disrupt business.[39]

The Victorian Act enhanced union influence over workplace health and safety oversight, including introducing health and safety representatives into workplaces and giving unions some control over the process of their election. These health and safety representatives had the power to inspect workplaces for hazards, issue improvement notices, and to stop work if it was deemed that there was an immediate threat to safety.[40]

While this law was a positive advance on other state legislation, work health and safety standards remained inconsistent across the states and territories – with workers in some jurisdictions enjoying less rights and protections than others.[41]

The election of the Labor Party at the federal election of 1983 under the leadership of former ACTU President Bob Hawke created the potential for national action on work health and safety.

Hawke’s government and the ACTU came to an unprecedented agreement known as the Accord, which fundamentally remade Australian workplace relations. High on the ACTU’s list of priorities were changes to work health and safety laws to make them strong, comprehensive and consistent across the country.[42]

As a result, in October 1984, the Federal Labor Government established the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) as an administrative body to begin to coordinate workplace health and safety country-wide. In 1985 the NOHSC was established as a statutory body under the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Act 1985.[43]

The Commission consisted of representatives of the states and territories, the Australian Chamber of Commerce, the ACTU, and the Commonwealth Ministers for IR and Health.[44]

It was charged with establishing national guidelines and standards for work health and safety and on leading educational campaigns across the country. The Commission did not diminish state authority – and the national standards it developed were ‘advisory in character’ in application to the states.[45]

 

Modern work health and safety reform

The Accord ended with the election of the Howard government in 1996. The Coalition made clear from the outset that it intended to leave work health and safety to the purview of the states, even reducing the funding of the NOHSC.

In 2005 the Commission was abolished altogether, replaced by the Australian Safety and Compensation Council.[46]

The overt anti-unionism of the Howard government ensured a difficult environment for unions wishing to further advance work health and safety protections. But even in this context significant gains were made.

In 2001 a long union campaign forced the asbestos-company James Hardy to create a compensation fund for its workers worth $293million.

In 2003, after the Hardie compensation fund ran out the company refused to allocate more money. A union campaign spearheaded by the worker advocate and asbestos activist Bernie Bantum in close cooperation with the ACTU began. In 2005, as a result of this campaign, James Hardie put aside $4.5billion for asbestos sufferers. In 2007 a further compensation deal worth $4billion was agreed to.

In 2007 the Rudd Labor Government was elected, with its platform including a commitment to harmonise work health and safety laws across the country through agreement with the states within five years.[47] It also created a new body to replace the Safety and Compensation Council, called Safe Work Australia.

Soon after, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) – made up of the federal, state, and territory governments – agreed to begin the process of harmonising these laws.[48]

An independent National Occupational Health and Safety Panel was established to review existing work health and safety laws and make recommendations for new model laws. Over the years that followed substantial work was conducted in developing national codes and standards and model work health and safety laws that could be introduced in every jurisdiction. Australia’s federal structure, however, ensured that this was an elongated and complicated process. Business interests sought to ensure that whatever standards were adopted nationally would not inhibit their operations, while unions insisted that the harmonisation process should not result in a compromise or reduction of protections or standards for workers in any Australian jurisdiction.[49]

A Model Work Health and Safety Act, along with Model Regulations and Codes of Practice, were developed in 2009-10. To date, the model laws have been implemented by the Commonwealth, the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania. While it is important to note that the model laws were based on the Victorian OHS Act the Victorian Labor Government refused to adopt the model laws at the time because they would have diminished the rights of workers and unions in a number of important areas. For the opposite reason the Conservative Western Australian Government also refused to adopt the model laws

The Commonwealth has jurisdiction over federal employees, employees of certain licenced corporations, and the maritime and offshore petroleum industries. There are also specific health and safety laws in industries or occupations with high, complex or unique risks and hazards, including mining and electrical work.[50]

 

The future of unions and work health and safety policy

The transformation in Australia’s work health and safety landscape did not just happen. The substantive reforms that delivered pathbreaking new mechanisms for work health and safety monitoring and the further protection of workers in their working lives were the result of union activity: campaigning, advocacy, and policy-development.

In more recent years the legislative environment created by Liberal Party governments has restricted union activity, and this has major implications for work health and safety. Laws that impede union activity have been demonstrated to interfere with the proper functioning of work health and safety systems, meaning that workers are less safe and less healthy.[51]

In 2018 WHS Ministers agreed to review the effectiveness of the model WHS laws. Unions campaigned for a range of reforms which were delivered in the final report handed down in early 2019. These included the introduction of industrial manslaughter laws, an offence already enacted in Queensland’s WHS Act, improvements to the rights of workers to be consulted about safety, strengthening the powers of health and safety representatives and the introduction of new regulations to combat mental health injuries which now represent the fastest growing injury in our workers’ compensation system.

In 2019, as part of a review of the model laws, the ACTU conducted its “Work Shouldn’t Hurt” safety survey to gauge the contemporary experience of health and safety at work. 80% of the 26,000 respondents indicated that they had been injured or become ill as a result of their work. It also noted an alarming rise in mental injury as a result of unsafe and unhealthy work practices.

As ACTU Assistant Secretary Liam O’Brien has commented: “A huge number of Australians suffer mental health issues every year because of stressors and other hazards they encounter in their workplace, and the evidence indicates that these people rarely receive support or compensation in the way that would be routine for physical injuries. This has to change. Mental health hazards at work should be treated the same as physical hazards. We need strong laws that protect people at work”

Clearly, there is still a long way to go to make our working lives as safe and healthy as possible. And you can bet that Australian Unions will be there every step of the way, leading the campaign for worker health and safety, just as we always have done.

The best way to protect yourself and your workmates and ensure your working lives are as safe and healthy as possible is to join your union.

_____________________________________________

[1] Neil Gunningham, “Workplace Safety and the Law”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 22-23; ANU, “Overview of work health and safety regulation in Australia”, http://regnet.anu.edu.au/research/centres/national-research-centre-ohs-regulation-nrcohsr/overview-work-health-and-safety-regulation-australia

[2] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 1”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 221.

[3] Michael Quinlan, “The Low Rumble of Informal Dissent: Shipboard Protest over Health and Safety in Australian Waters, 1790 – 1900”, Labour History 102 (2012): 132.

[4] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 1”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 221.

[5] Neil Gunningham, “Workplace Safety and the Law”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 23-4.

[6] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 1”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 221.

[7] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 1”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 221.

[8] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 1”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 221.

[9] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 1”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 221.

[10] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 1”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 220.

[11] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 1”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 222.

[12] Chris Winder, “The development of OHS legislation in Australia”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety 25:4 (2009): 282.

[13] Neil Gunningham, “Workplace Safety and the Law”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 24.

[14] Neil Gunningham, “Workplace Safety and the Law”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 25.

[15] Edward A Emmett, “Occupational health and safety in national development – the case of Australia”, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 23:5 (1997): 326; Neil Gunningham, “Workplace Safety and the Law”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 24.

[16] Edward A Emmett, “Occupational health and safety in national development – the case of Australia”, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 23:5 (1997): 326.

[17] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 1”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 222; Edward A Emmett, “Occupational health and safety in national development – the case of Australia”, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 23:5 (1997): 325.

[18] John Matthews, “Trade Union Occupational Health and Safety Initiatives”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 191.

[19] EJ Micallef, “Worker Participation and Occupational Health and Safety – A Union View”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 206.

[20] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 2”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 224.

[21] ACTU OH&S website “Union Movement”.

[22] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 2”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 225.

[23] John Matthews, “Trade Union Occupational Health and Safety Initiatives”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 193.

[24] Ben Bartlett, “History of the Sydney Workers Health Movement”, Australian Left Review (Winter 1984): 41.

[25] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 2”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 225.

[26] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 2”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 225.

[27] John Matthews, “Trade Union Occupational Health and Safety Initiatives”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 190.

[28] Neil Gunningham, “Workplace Safety and the Law”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 27-31.

[29] Eric Windholz, “The Long andWinding Road to OHS Harmonisation”, Labour History 104 (2013): 173.

[30] David Biggins, “The social context of legislative reform: part 2”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 9:3 (1993): 225.

[31] John Matthews, “Trade Union Occupational Health and Safety Initiatives”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 193.

[32] John Matthews, “Trade Union Occupational Health and Safety Initiatives”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 197.

[33] John Matthews, “Trade Union Occupational Health and Safety Initiatives”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 193.

[34] John Matthews, “Trade Union Occupational Health and Safety Initiatives”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 214.

[35] John Matthews, “Trade Union Occupational Health and Safety Initiatives”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 214.

[36] John Matthews, “Trade Union Occupational Health and Safety Initiatives”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 194.

[37] Edward A Emmett, “Occupational health and safety in national development – the case of Australia”, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 23:5 (1997): 327; Chris Winder, “The development of OHS legislation in Australia”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety 25:4 (2009): 285.

[38] WG Carson and Cathy Henenberg, “Social Justice at the Workplace: The Political Economy of Occupational Health and Safety Laws”, Social Justice 16:3 (1989): 126.

[39] WG Carson and Cathy Henenberg, “Social Justice at the Workplace: The Political Economy of Occupational Health and Safety Laws”, Social Justice 16:3 (1989): 127.

[40] WG Carson and Cathy Henenberg, “Social Justice at the Workplace: The Political Economy of Occupational Health and Safety Laws”, Social Justice 16:3 (1989): 126.

[41] Edward A Emmett, “Occupational health and safety in national development – the case of Australia”, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 23:5 (1997): 326.

[42] John Matthews, “Trade Union Occupational Health and Safety Initiatives”, in Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds) The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Healm Australia, 1985), 194.

[43] “About Us”, Safe Work Australiahttps://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/about-us; Edward A Emmett, “Occupational health and safety in national development – the case of Australia”, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 23:5 (1997): 327.

[44] Edward A Emmett, “Occupational health and safety in national development – the case of Australia”, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 23:5 (1997): 327.

[45] Eric Windholz, “The Long andWinding Road to OHS Harmonisation”, Labour History 104 (2013): 176.

[46] ANU, “Overview of work health and safety regulation in Australia”, http://regnet.anu.edu.au/research/centres/national-research-centre-ohs-regulation-nrcohsr/overview-work-health-and-safety-regulation-australia

[47] Eric Windholz, “The Long andWinding Road to OHS Harmonisation”, Labour History 104 (2013): 182.

[48] Eric Windholz, “The Long andWinding Road to OHS Harmonisation”, Labour History 104 (2013): 182.

[49] Eric Windholz, “The Long andWinding Road to OHS Harmonisation”, Labour History 104 (2013): 182-184.

[50] ANU, “Overview of work health and safety regulation in Australia”, http://regnet.anu.edu.au/research/centres/national-research-centre-ohs-regulation-nrcohsr/overview-work-health-and-safety-regulation-australia

[51] Andrew Ferguson, “Trade Unions and OHS”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, 25:4 (2009): 305-318.

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