By Dustin Halse

07 September 2021

Find my speech in Hansard

I am delighted to get up and talk to this bill this afternoon in the chamber, the Occupational Health and Safety and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021. I want to give a shout-out to someone watching this from a considerable distance: my nephew, who is currently overseas, who I have not seen for some time. So I send him, Xavier, a quick shout-out before I commence.

I would like to start by thanking the minister for bringing this bill before the chamber this afternoon, this wideranging bill. The bill will amend several existing pieces of legislation, including the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, the Dangerous Goods Act 1985, the Workplace Injury Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2013 and the Equipment (Public Safety) Act 1994. The bill will strengthen our current workplace safety laws and make them more effective in keeping all Victorians safe. This bill drills down to the core ethos and values of the labour movement and the Labor Party, and that is that we stand up every single day for ordinary Victorian workers, everyday Victorian workers—those construction workers right now and throughout the course of the term of this government who have built roads and hospitals and train tunnels and every other piece of vital infrastructure that we need as a state and that our local communities rely upon.

To this end, the bill sets out a number of key reforms that have been touched upon. It is often difficult to follow in the footsteps of the member for Altona and former Attorney-General, given her significant work in the provision of new pieces of legislation that have meant that Victorian workers get a better deal and are safer at work. Her work around industrial manslaughter provisions and also wage theft provisions should be noted. But this bill sets out a number of key reforms to improve rights and protections for labour hire workers; ensure duty holders under workplace safety laws cannot use insurance or indemnity arrangements to avoid the consequences of failing to comply with the law; streamline provisions for electronic delivery of certain notices and reports issued by WorkSafe Victoria inspectors; allow infringement notices to be served electronically; allow authorised representatives of registered employee organisations, known as ARREOs, and health and safety representatives (HSRs) to take photos and measurements and make sketches and recordings; and simplify procedures for disposing of or destroying property which has been seized by WorkSafe where the owner of the property does not want the property returned or the item is a copy of a document obtained under the relevant inspector powers.

I want to touch upon a couple of components of this broad bill that is before us this afternoon. I note some of the comments from the opposition that have been provided in just the previous contributions. The member for Ovens Valley spoke about secret recordings and blackmail. We have heard from the member for Mornington, who said that this bill is not urgent, it could be weaponised and it is not in the interests of the Victorian people—some interesting comments there that have been made. I will refer back to those at the end of my contribution.

I do want to note that under the OH&S act the ARREOs, as authorised union representatives, are empowered to enter a workplace where an ARREO suspects that a contravention of the act or regulations has occurred and to exercise certain powers on entry for the purpose of that inquiry. The OH&S act, which is a good act but needs some amendments, as it currently reads does not expressly confer on an ARREO or a health and safety representative the power to film or photograph for the purpose of inquiring into a suspected contravention of the act or regulations. I note that bosses often use this device, this power—it is not uncommon—but workers, HSRs and ARREO permit holders are not permitted to. It is worth noting that ARREO permit holders have the power to address workplace issues and they have a number of devices within the act at present, but we should seek to strengthen those, particularly when worker safety is an issue that is being brought to light. I note that bosses and employers have often used and do often use photographs and visual content and put that visual content on their websites, put that on their social media pages, and that is a frequent occurrence.

I would note that construction is still an incredibly unsafe industry. A decade ago I wrote an article and said that on average in Australia a construction worker dies every week—those figures are likely conservative—and beyond that we know that other workplace injuries are significant. To this point of the year, 34 individuals have lost their lives on worksites across Australia—the average is up from 49 in 2018 to 69 in 2020. Particularly with respect to the construction industry we have seen a spike this year in falls from heights, with 11 serious injuries, not including minor injuries or near misses. This is just the Victorian construction industry, and it is not just people who are misstepping. It is usually people who are in precarious positions—they are attaching or affixing heavy, complex acoustic equipment in theatres and things like that—who find themselves in very significant and precarious situations. I note that unions have been calling for the power to go in with their ARREOs, with health and safety officials, and to simply take footage of unsafe environments.

I want to reflect on a young man who lost his life just a few weeks ago. He was a final-year apprentice who fell from a height on a construction site. His body was found approximately 15 minutes after the fall. There were pieces of scaffolding on the ground next to him on the platform he was working on, but there were no clear issues with the scaffolding, which is a demonstration of how complex and complicated ensuring safety is and why we need safety representatives and ARREOs to be able to go in and take a simple photo to record what is happening. This young man, Robert Agostino—I send my regards to his family, friends and colleagues—passed away. He hit his head on the concrete as a part of the fall. The site was not a union site. Much more could have been done to save his life. If we had better safety provisions and powers for ARREOs to go on and do their job of just making sure that people on the job are safe, if workplace representatives could address issues of safety, then people like Rob would still be here with us today.