Address to National Day of Mourning, Brisbane

  • Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation

[Check against delivery]

One of the privileges of being a parent and a husband is that special, amazing time of day when you come home from work.

You open the gate, walk up the path and unlock the door.

And you’re home.

There are your kids.

The little 3 year olds who scream out daddy and hug you, primary school kids running around, the teenagers who just grunt and barely lift their head from the screen.

Your wife – who smiles at you provided you’re in the good books.

The dog – definitely, unequivocally always happy to see you.

This is what life is all about.

But this year, there will be hundreds of Australian houses, Australian families, Australian kids for whom the terrible phone call or knock at the door will be unbearable, unreplaceable, never get over news that someone you love – mother, father, husband, wife, brother, sister, son, daughter – is gone.

You will never get the chance to say goodbye

…I’ll miss you

…I love you

Ever again.

Tomorrow at dawn, we will begin the great process of mourning, and praising, young men who never got back to their farms and their wives and their parents, from Gallipoli, or Darwin, or Singapore, or Alamein, or Long Tan, or Kapyeong, or the Somme, who made, while not meaning to, or planning to, the ultimate sacrifice to preserve, they hoped, their way of life and their freedom.

And there are other young men, too, volunteers like the Anzacs, who in Kandahar or Tarin Kowt, have in this past week been under fire for a similar cause, the freedom and safely of democrats, and those thirty-four who never came back to their towns, and their wives, and the green, green grass of home, as heroes named and remembered.

We always remember the dead. We mourn them, we venerate them, we write them songs and poems, and pray for their surviving families as we should.

It is part of the way we are as a tribe and a national family, bereaved in faraway places of our most promising sons and daughters in battles not always our own, and give thanks to these young strangers whom we never knew in life and owe so much.

They put themselves in harm’s way, always for their mates; and the harm came.

And every ANZAC Day, we re-imbibe and re-experience the sad glory of the casualties of war.

There is less acclaim, however, less memorial sculpture and rolls of honour for others who have died at work.

People who honour their contract of employment – productive, profitable, fair dinkum workers, people who through no fault of their own do not return home safely.

It is right to venerate our lost ones, as we do today and will do tomorrow.

But I believe that all too often workplace deaths have a pointlessness about them.

A sudden – often predictable – lining up of a series of small daily hazards, when a bunch of risks ‘gang up’ on someone, and a catastrophe erupts: electrocution, falling scaffolding, a foul and toxic  mist or fume in a confined space, a flying piece of machinery, an unguarded pinch point in a conveyor  belt, the unguarded spinning hammers of a crusher.

It’s the toss of a coin about which gold miner will work the tele-handler the day of the fatal rock fall.

Forty-five Australians have been killed at work already this year.

These deaths are not heroic - they’re tragic, they’re pointless and painfully predictable in too many cases.

The average age of a worker who is killed on the job is thirty-seven.

Thirty-seven: the age Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity and changed the world.

Imagine what our nation has lost through the premature deaths of our fellow Australians.

Imagine the unfinished business of love and family, of parenting and Christmas lunches, and grandchildren never met.

I have witnessed firsthand the guilt and grief, anger and despair felt by workmates, colleagues and bosses.

I’ve stood in hospital wards looked at the burns and amputations of people just like you and me.

I’ve visited grieving mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, trying to recapture the stories of their loved one who left for work and never came home.

But it is impossible to give these deaths meaning.

Because we know they are preventable. They are not accidents. 

Let me repeat this:  by far most deaths and serious injuries are predictable safety failures. 

It’s not a systems’ failure or risk assessment failure, or hazard identification failure…and all those other handsome words without tears. 

It is the failure that springs as a readymade monster from the knowing tolerance of small daily hazards at the daily tasks. 

Ask workers anywhere, they’ll tell you.

Too many Australians have died on the job because of what might appear minor health and safety failures:

     Insufficient or totally inadequate guarding on moving parts of machines

    Entry  into dangerous confined spaces

    The lack of proper lights and effective reverse alarms on mobile plant

    Dangerous equipment, and unstable vehicles like quad bikes, now the worst killer on farms.

    Absent scaffolding

    Untrained and unsupervised use of hazardous chemicals.

    Toxic workplace bullying

    Exposure to lung-killing asbestos fibres.

And, I must add, how many workers are killed  after long term diseases as a result of chemicals, pesticides, years of stress and depression?

These are the daily battles that the labor movement know all too well.

It’s the labor movement who say close  enough  is  never good enough for workplace health and safety.

It’s the labor movement that fight the cases of unfairness, compensation, rehabilitation  and, constantly struggle  for improvements in health and safety standards.

It’s always the labor movement who are there to console and support the families who have lost a loved one.

To those who seek to destroy the labor movement, who say that we’ve had our day; that our work is done, that we are history…

...go and tell that to the seriously injured workers in chronic pain, who can’t even lift up their kids

…go and tell that to the families and mates of dead workers. 

...go and tell that to victims of workplace bullying.

...go and tell that to new mums returning to work who are discriminated against.

…go and tell that to the men and women who have to fight and struggle with  companies like James Hardie to get the care they need and deserve.

To say the labor movement’s work is done is to say that 300 of our fellow Australians dying at work is acceptable, that the thousands of injuries are fine, that the fact that some worker has bones broken nearly every hour of the working day, somewhere in Australia, is acceptable. 

The labor movement and these workers provide the eyes and ears at work, they see and experience the daily hazards, not the paperwork, the actual hazards.  They need to be heard, 

It’s one thing to weep almost tears of blood over killed workers, to treat them as lost treasures when we bury them. 

And I’ve seen workers and their employers weep in such circumstances.  Of course you would!

But these workers are treasures when they are still alive?  What about keeping an eye on daily hazards and doing something about them at the task, not in the responsibility avoiding paperwork?

I take the opportunity on this memorial day to say to management teams:  forget the big canvasses and the fancy words and the fancy theories. 

Begin by not tolerating small daily hazards, that’s how this long journey starts, by everyone knowing that even small safety failures will not be tolerated at any workplace. 

Foster and nurture a demonstrable intolerance to small daily hazards. 

This is doable, this is not expensive, there is no excuse for not doing it.

You don’t need any extra training or extra paper work. 

You need to understand what it is to have a sense of dignity at work. To understand what workers mean when they say, “The safety program here is in good hands.  Remember this:  IN GOOD HANDS.  Where trust and respect live.

To say workplace injuries are the price we pay for profit is ignorant and uncivilised.

Well that’s not the Australia I know and love. And that’s not the Australia YOU know and love.

It’s not the Queensland we know and love.

We’re better than that, and we must stand as one – employees and employers -  and say we won’t stop this fight until every Australian who leaves for work comes home safe and in good health, and satisfied with a good day’s work. 

I thank you.

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