2016: A “Horror” Year for Preventable Deaths at Work

 

Each January the Victorian OHS regulator, WorkSafe Victoria, solemnly publishes the list of those killed at work in the previous year. Last year the Victorian toll was 26 – the highest for eight years and six more than in 2015.

The total was so high WorkSafe Victoria’s Health and Safety Chief, Marnie Williams, called the 2016 toll “horrific”. These deaths were among the 176 deaths at work in Australia last year, according to the tally kept by the Federal Government’s OHS policy body, SafeWork Australia.

“As Victorians begin a new working year, every employer and employee must do everything they can”, Ms Williams said.

The Victorian regulator releases the annual tally to send a message to employers that the death of any worker is unacceptable and that a death can have a ‘ripple effect’ on the community.

Ms Williams said: “As well as the devastation suffered by families and friends, a workplace fatality has an enormous impact on colleagues and, ultimately, business itself as it is the employer who will face the courts should there be a serious incident.”

The sad story of 2016 was similar to previous years. More than half the deaths were in construction and agriculture that are traditionally the highest risk industries. Many deaths on farms meant that majority of deaths happened in regional and rural centres.

The other recurring factor was the age of the deceased. They ranged in age from 21 to 73 with an average age of 50. While the average age reflects the ageing workforce, older workers (over 45) and young workers (up to 25) alike are classified as “vulnerable” because they are at greater risk of injury. The risk is older workers may be doing work that is unsuitable for them eg working at height, while inexperienced young workers may be exposed to high risk without adequate instruction and supervision.

The other worrying statistic was that three of the people who died were not actually “workers”. They died during work that involved providing services to members of the public. One was a man receiving therapeutic treatment, another was being instructed in recreational diving and the other was a resident of an aged care facility. Under OHS law, employers have the same legal duty of care for members of the public affected by the work.

The causes of death during 2016 are the bane of all Australian regulators: being hit by or caught in mobile plant or machinery, falls and electrocution. What disappoints and concerns the regulators is that these are known hazards with known risk reduction measures. There is no reason why such incidents should occur year after year. Ms Williams speaks for all regulators when she reminds employers that the safest workplaces were those where employers and workers discuss safety matters and act to resolve them as part of their day to day work.

Since 2000, there have been 259 official work-related deaths in Victoria. The annual average is 25 which says that while the overall trend is to fewer deaths over the long term, the reduction rate is slower than the reduction rate in injuries.

The regulator has stated many times that the injury rate is lower because workplaces are getting better at managing risk, and using new technology, such as in materials handling, safer height access equipment and other labour savings technologies that are more readily available and cost effective.

The assumption has been that if you reduce risk, incidents in the past that may have resulted in fatal injuries are now resulting is less serious injury or a near miss or the risk is eliminated by automating the task.

The 2016 death toll shows that Australian employers need to do much more to reduce risk of death and serious injury.

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