Sam is a Safe at Work organiser at the Victorian Trades Hall. His role is an important one: to ensure that work conditions in Victoria are safe and tenable for workers in a variety of industries. In an industrial climate where occupational health and safety (OH&S) is shunned for the sake of ‘efficiency’ and profit, Sam and his team are vital in the community. After all, everyone deserves to have a safe workplace.
What is OH&S?
Rather than answer this with a technical definition, in simple terms, OH&S is the ability to go home from work to your family and your friends in the same condition that you left.
People often get bogged down talking about the technicalities and policy of OH&S. But at the end of the day, going home healthy to your loved ones is what it all boils down to.
It’s the core of what unions are ‘about’.
Why did you take an OH&S position at Trades Hall?
Every right we have under law in regards to safety at work has been fought for and won by the union movement.
I was a union delegate and Health & Safety Representative in my previous job. We had to fight with management and negotiate to get every safety protection we had. The position at Trades Hall was a step out of my comfort zone, but still allowed us to campaign for change at high levels within WorkSafe, the union movement, and the Government.
We help to create safer workplaces by building the capacity and confidence of Health and Safety Representatives, and also by helping to assist injured workers and migrant communities. Trades Hall is the place to be for creating real change at the moment and I’m super lucky to be a small part of a such diverse & active team.
What are the most important rules that govern OH&S (The Hierarchy)?
1. Your boss must provide a workplace that is safe and without risks to health. As a worker, you have some responsibilities too, such as following reasonable instructions and not recklessly endangering others. But at the end of the day, your employer has the ultimate duty to keep you safe at work.
The hierarchy of controls is a great one to remember. Your employer must identify and control risks first by:
- ‘Eliminating the risk at the source’, e.g by not undertaking that task. If this is not possible, then your employer must try to reduce risk by:
- Substituting, e.g. erecting a barrier or scaffolding to stop falls from heights. If this is still not possible then your employer must then look at:
- Engineering Controls, e.g. asking whether machinery can reduce risks, such as a scissor lift for work at heights or a trolley for manual handling tasks. If it is still not possible to reduce risk then:
- ‘Administrative Controls’ can be used, e.g. using a sign or procedure. Your employer can reduce risk further by issuing PPE.
‘PPE’ such as Hi Vis vests are the least effective way of controlling risk at work. Sure, you should wear it if your employer requires you to do so, but that is not the only thing your employer should be doing to keep you safe. They must look at reducing risk in all of the other ways mentioned (Eliminate, Substitute, Engineering Controls, Administrative Controls) before they even look at giving you a safety vest!
2. Your employer has a duty to provide appropriate training and supervision to do each task. The “just have a go and let me know if you have any problems” attitude just doesn’t cut it. There are horrific cases of serious injuries and fatalities when this attitude is adopted. Massive penalties for employers apply where appropriate training and supervision have not been provided.
3. You have the right to be represented. If you don’t have elected Health and Safety representatives in your workplace, you should talk to your colleagues about it. Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) have legal powers that allow them to raise issues and fight for health and safety on the job. These include the power to write an enforceable notice asking your employer to remedy an OHS issue or otherwise WorkSafe will get involved. They also have the power to “Cease Work” if there is a serious, imminent, or immediate threat to Health and Safety. Contact your union or Trades Hall today if you need help with the process of electing HSRs.
4. You have the right to compensation if you are injured. So many people don’t report injuries. Even though it may feel minor at the time, injuries may turn into something more serious, leaving you unable to work for a period of time (e.g. back injury). It’s very important to report injuries. You can also lodge a workers injury claim for compensation. Speak to your union, as they can help you with this process.
5. Finally, always ask questions if you’re unsure about something. If you’ve been asked to do something that you think is unsafe: stop work and ask someone for help. You have the right to refuse unsafe work. ‘Stand Up, Speak Out, Come Home.’
How does OH&S relate specifically to young people?
Young people are much more likely to be injured at work. In the past year, there have been a number of fatalities involving young people. A 21-year-old French backpacker fell 13 floors to her death on a Perth construction site. Worse yet, her employer sent her family a letter in response that blamed the young woman for the accident. A 17-year-old also fell to his death whilst installing a glass ceiling on the new H&M retail building in Perth.
Accidents happen in all industries, and not just construction. What we have found is that statistically, young people are overrepresented in injuries of all kinds. The important message that I would give to all young people specifically is that you have the right to be properly trained, inducted, and supervised. Always ask a question if you’re unsure.
There is strength in numbers, and joining your union and being active about knowing and asserting your rights is the best way to stay safe at work.
What keeps you motivated to deal with OH&S issues and continue to educate others about OH&S?
I used to work on the docks as a wharfie, one of the most dangerous industries around. Unfortunately I saw too many serious accidents that left people badly hurt, missing limbs, or worse, killed. No one should ever die at work. Period.
A mate of mine, Tony ‘Hollywood’ Attard, was killed at Toll Shipping in 2014. He was run over and squashed by a trailer. I’ll never forget the look on the faces of his wife and kids or how bravely they spoke at his funeral. That should never happen to anyone. They still deserve to have their father and husband at home with them. They were robbed. Thinking about them is what keeps me going.
OH&S can be a dry subject at times but it is so important to keep working at it and get it right.