The Guardian April 19, 2000


What price a life?

On October 1, 1998, casual building employee Peter Barnes died after 
falling 5.9 metres through an opening in the roof of an industrial shed. 
Last week Magistrate Peter Webber, from the Southport Industrial 
Magistrate's Court, fined the company Master Ryane, and its director Ian 
Goodlet, a total of $42,000 for failing to provide a safe system for the 
placement of roof sheeting.

The company had pleaded guilty to the charges brought by the prosecution, 
which alleged that the company had provided no mesh protection, harnesses 
or other protective devices.

Mr Jim Carmichael, a Program Services Director with the Department of 
Employment, Training and Industrial Relations, warned companies to properly 
assess the risks employees faced in the workplace, particularly when 
working at heights.

Construction companies have no excuse for failure to comply. As Mr 
Carmichael pointed out, these hazards are well known and easily rectified.

The case highlights the Queensland construction industry's appalling safety 
record. The industry has the second worst accidental death rate in 
Australia, i.e. 12 workers killed per 100,000 every year, more than twice 
the Australian "all industry" average.

The Queensland Department of Employment, Training and Industrial Relations 
has expressed deep concern about the failure of construction companies to 
comply with workplace health and safety (WH&S) requirements.

The Department has publicly discussed various options for achieving 
compliance, including the enactment of stricter WH&S regulations. However, 
this remains at best a distant threat, one of a "range of options" they are 
considering.

They have identified certain immediate causes of accidents in the workplace 
(working at height, working from ladders, electrical hazards etc.). 
However, they don't appear to have identified social factors, in particular 
the effective deregulation of certain aspects of the industry, and the 
employment of casual labour (usually non-unionised) as contributing to the 
problem.

If the fine of $42,000 for the death of Peter Barnes is anything to go by, 
(and it was a record figure for Queensland) the companies suffer 
comparatively little in financial terms from penalties for industrial 
accidents.

What price an employee's life? Ask the families of those killed or injured 
on the job, but don't ask the construction companies. 

Don't ask me what a man is,
Don't ask me for advice,
I don't know what a man is,
All I know is his price!
(Hans Eisler, "Supply and Demand", 1936).

Back to index page