Warning: the article below deals with workplace fatalities and terminal illnesses.
There was something different about this year’s International Workers’ Memorial Day ceremony. (Apart from having to sign in with a QR code for COVID-19 protocols.) If you attended, or if you caught the live stream (which, good news, you can still watch if you missed it) you would have noticed that some of the deaths that were commemorated were unlike the others.
On the 10th of June, a 73-year-old died of complications of disease as a result of exposure to chemicals at work including benzene and butadiene.
On the 29th of July, a 62-year-old emergency services worker died from Hep B and liver cancer due to his contact with contaminated bloods and body fluids over a six-year period.
On the 24th of August, a 78-year-old male emergency services worker died from complications of illness as a result of asbestos exposure.
On the 3rd of October, a 59 year old manufacturing worker died as a result of exposure to silica dust and fibres.
For many years now, Victorian unions have been tallying and documenting fatalities of all workers who are killed at work. We are able to do this because in many cases, a fatality from a physical hazard tends to be highly visible and easily traceable. Workplace diseases, usually caused by long-term exposure to dangerous chemicals and substances, can be harder to pin down. Without access to the information required, we have not been able to keep our own count.
This year, however, was different. WorkSafe, after much pressure over many years from the union movement, has expanded its definition of what constitutes a workplace death. According to the announcement, made in July last year: “Those killed on the road while working, suicides attributable to a workplace health and safety failure, deaths from industrial diseases such as silicosis, and workplace deaths resulting from a criminal act, will be recognised in WorkSafe’s fatality toll from this week.”
No such suicides were recorded, but the other categories were tragically represented in this year’s count.
Why is this so important? It’s an unfortunate but undeniable truth that so much of our talk about occupational health and safety focuses on the most visible and tragic examples of what happens when things go wrong. When there’s an incident with a crane, for example, people notice. And when people notice, we start talking about crane safety with a little more urgency.
Workplace diseases, by contrast, are invisible. And their effects (death, in many cases) are not experienced for many years after first contact with their cause. These deaths are no less tragic than the others, but they are not dealt with in the same way. Only by tracking and recognising them will the same urgency be put on their causes.
“You count what you care about,” Luke Hilakari, VTHC Secretary, told the crowd gathered on Lygon Street to mark International Workers Memorial Day. “Counting and understanding what is going on is the first step towards thinking about what controls should be put in place.”
Recognition for Silicosis Victims
You will have noticed in the list at the start of this article, the inclusion of a worker who died as a result of exposure to silica dust and fibres. This is a massive tragedy, but its recognition is a long time coming.
A few short years ago, no one was talking about silica exposure and silicosis. It was only unions, their members and their HSRs that began to notice a dangerous trend in the unsafe use of engineered stone and the health effects it produces. Silicosis is an incurable disease, and often results in years of suffering before finally killing its victim. It is also very clearly a workplace disease as it can only be contracted in one way: the inhalation of fine dust particles such as those used in stone benchtops and other installations.
Since then, workers and their unions have been able to force the hands of regulators and governments to make practices in these workplaces safer. Greg Ballantyne, a former stonemason who developed scleroderma as a result of silica exposure, started a petition through Megaphone to lower the exposure standard from 0.1 mg/m3 to 0.025 mg/m3. By requiring employers to implement controls at this lower standard, many lives would be saved.
“I wouldn’t have developed this illness had my workplace taken safety seriously,” said Greg. “Switching out silica for an alternative material, or using proper extraction techniques and being provided with appropriate PPE if there was still exposure could have stopped me from developing scleroderma.”
The petition was a huge success, garnering over 10,000 signatures. The standard was lowered by Safe Work Australia, although not to the desired level. A ban on dry cutting has since been implemented by the Victorian government and a compliance system for companies who manufacture, cut and install engineered stone is in the works. There is a very real conversation taking place around whether the substance should be banned entirely, much the same as asbestos is.
These are the kinds of things we mean when we say we will fight like hell for the living.
The Road as a Workplace
Road deaths are now also counted among the workplace death toll. Prior to last year, these fatalities were not counted, despite OHS legislation being very clear about a workplace being anywhere that work takes place, and specifically mentions: “a car, truck, ship, boat, airplane and any other vehicle.” Just because someone doesn’t work in a building or even a static location, doesn’t mean they aren’t in a workplace.
The road is a dangerous place, but that doesn’t let employers off the hook for providing a safe working environment.
There were eight such incidents in the 12 months prior to April 28th, including:
A 21-year-old delivery driver who was killed after his truck rolled
A 35-year-old man who died when the truck he was a passenger in lost control around a bend and struck a tree near Colac
A 57-year-old Australia Post worker who died after being struck by a vehicle while on his motorbike in Baw Baw
A 47-year-old-truck driver who was killed while crossing the Victorian - South Australian border after a collision between three trucks at Serviceton
The road is a dangerous place, but that doesn’t let employers off the hook for providing a safe working environment. By counting these as workplace deaths we can look at them through the lens of occupational health and safety, not just freak accidents. Driver fatigue is a massive contributing factor to the rate of vehicular incidents, and it is compounded by the demands of the workplace. The TWU’s Safe Rates campaign is aimed at addressing these issues.
Workplace Manslaughter Raises the Stakes
Especially now that workplace manslaughter has been legislated in Victoria, we need to get a sense of the true nature of cause-and-effect when it comes to workplace deaths. An employer who exposes his workers to silica dust over a long period of time is just as culpable as one who doesn’t provide safety harnesses.
Grasping the interconnectivity of things like systems of work, the work environment, proper training, appropriate tools and equipment, and safe handling and storage of substances, and proper facilities will be vitally important in coming years in the event of a prosecution for workplace manslaughter. It’s the reason the policy minds in the union movement specifically did not want the Workplace Manslaughter provisions put into the Crimes Act: because OHS can’t be investigated in the same way as other crimes that lead to loss of life. It has many intricacies that only WorkSafe can understand.
There was something different about this year’s International Workers’ Memorial Day ceremony. If you attended, or if you caught the live stream, you would have noticed that some of the deaths that were commemorated were unlike the others.