Unions’ work safety fears worthy of investigation by ACT government

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The work safety authority’s visits to more than 20 sites for its recent audit report proved valuable for Canberra’s workers and businesses when it revealed employers were being lax with scaffolding hazards for building sites.

By WorkSafe ACT’s measure, the scaffolds it examined flunked the test and only one in five were fully compliant with requirements. The figure should give pause to workers high up on those construction sites seen rising around the city. For their families, it will be a warning.

The authority’s audit report is itself part of WorkSafe’s strategy to use education as a way to solve such careless disregard for work safety among employers in the ACT. Towards the report’s end, it says education will be core to the regulator’s approach to preventing danger. Safety newsletters and website updates are two instruments it will use. Bosses can also expect more inspections.

As other statistics show, WorkSafe appears to be moving towards education at the expense of enforcement in regulating worker safety in Canberra. The number of infringement notices issued in the ACT has declined across the last several years, from 43 in 2013-14 to 13 the next year and zero for 2015-16.

Unions have decried the trend, and say it’s responsible for a rise in workplace injuries. It also links this increase to a raft of other changes to the ACT’s work safety regulator in recent years, not least WorkSafe ACT’s 2015 merger with Access Canberra. Unions ACT says this has weakened the regulator and watered down the authority of its commissioner.

Sniffing possible evidence of WorkSafe’s diminishing effectiveness, Unions ACT on Saturday called for Access Canberra to clarify how inspectors achieved a near-doubling in workplace visits in the two years after it took over the regulator. It suspects inspections increased because officials have been combining work safety visits with those that Access Canberra conducts for other matters, such as building standards and consumer protection. If that’s the case, work safety visits would not pack the punch they once did, unions say.

While workplace injuries have declined for the ACT in recent years, a SafeWork Australia report showed the territory had the second-highest rate of serious work injury claims and early data also indicated it was alone among states and territories in recording a rise in rates of long term claims for 12 or more weeks of compensation in the three years to 2013-14.

This was all largely before WorkSafe became part of Access Canberra. The fact is, it takes some untangling to establish a link between the changes to WorkSafe ACT, the decline in enforcement and workplace injuries in Canberra. Unions are right to raise the matter, and a near-doubling in inspections should raise eyebrows.

Claiming a link between work safety incidents and changes at the regulator may serve unions’ argument. At this stage, it remains a claim, albeit one deserving of investigation by the government.

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