At least 64 Australians have died while at work so far this year — with a staggering rise in one of the most unexpected sectors — leading to warnings about risky workplace practices.
In its most recently published figures, Safe Work Australia revealed there had been 64 workplace fatalities in 2019 up to 6 June.
And while most industries saw the same or fewer fatalities this year than the same period in 2018, a surprising figure is that seven people among this year’s deaths are working in public administration and safety — a sector which had recorded none in the same period last year.
The electricity, gas, water and waste services sectors have also seen a substantial rise in the number of deaths at work this year, doubling from two to four.
There have been several more fatalities reported since that time, including of a farm hand who died from head injuries while felling trees and a farmer struck and killed by a post hole digger — both of which happened in Victoria.
Encouragingly, though, 2019 looks on track to have fewer workplace fatalities than in recent years. The 64 deaths to date are well under half the 157 workers killed in the whole of 2018, and around a third of the 190 deaths recorded in the whole of 2017.
Compensation claims not what you’d expect
According to risk management firm SAI Global, there are a number of common workplace hazards that are being overlooked by employers. And they impact industries which tend to be thought of as being safer.
“Contrary to a common perception that compensation claims largely occur in physically labour-intensive workplaces, the latest data from Safe Work Australia reveals that 40 per cent of claims have been made by employees in administration, professional services, sales, community work and management,” said Rod Beath, the company’s workplace safety spokesperson.
“Our audits reveal that risks are most significant in those organisations where management has not taken on board the company’s Workplace Health and Safety policy, or have not included and consulted everyone in the company.”
Mr Beath said that employers, including senior management, should take a more serious and proactive approach to meeting health and safety obligations, and “look at reducing risks of physical and mental illness and injury to their workers”.
He suggested there are seven areas which are commonly being overlooked when assessing workplace risks:
- Heavy workloads and high stress levels — with stress being the second most commonly compensated illness or injury
- Concealed bullying and harassment
- Basic clutter creating a risk of falls or collisions
- Fire safety equipment being blocked, often by furniture or equipment
- Non-adjustable desks, chairs and monitors creating injuries, including back pain
- Extreme temperatures — beyond a recommended 22 degrees in summer and 24 degrees in winter
- A set and forget mentality — “If you can’t remember seeing a company WHS policy, you have a major employee safety issue.”
“Workplace safety is non-negotiable, no matter what industry you’re in,” Mr Beath said.
“Not complying with the Workplace Health and Safety Act can result in thousands of dollars in litigation costs, a drain on resources, potential loss of time, illness and injuries, increased WorkCover claims, a damaged brand reputation and — of greatest concern — potential fatalities.”
Call for workplaces to install defibrillators
Victoria’s safety body, WorkSafe Victoria, has called on employers to consider installing a defibrillator, suggesting they are easy to use and can make all the difference in an emergency.
“Very few people survive a cardiac arrest without swift assistance, and the use of an AED [automated external defibrillator] might be the difference between life and death,” said Julie Nielsen, the regulator’s health and safety executive director.
“Anyone can use an AED. You do not need specialised training, but you do need access to one to save a life.”
According to Ms Nielsen, there are 19,000 of the devices installed across Victoria alone, but many more workplaces do not have one.
WorkSafe Victoria said that heart attacks are fatal within minutes if not treated, with CPR and defibrillation being tested methods of restarting a heart that has stopped beating.
When installing the device in a workplace, the agency recommends:
- Putting it in a well-known, visible and accessible location
- Ensuring it is properly set up and ready to use
- Not keeping it locked away
- Registering it with the relevant ambulance body to enhance ease of access
- Familiarising all staff with how to operate the device
- Undertaking routine maintenance checks
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.