“Mum, someone is going to get killed on that worksite … they’re hell reckless Mum. No one wears a harness.” This was how Regan Ballantine recalled a conversation with her 17-year-old son, Wesley, days before he fell 12 metres to his death while installing a glass ceiling at work.
Photos Wesley took of the construction site where he worked in central Perth show a tragedy waiting to happen. In one, a narrow beam is being used as a platform with no scaffolding or harnesses.
As the recent Western Australian hearings of the Senate inquiry into industrial deaths have demonstrated, Wesley’s death was not an isolated incident. Western Australia is the only state where the workplace death rate has risen over the last five years, from 1.5 to 1.7 deaths per 100,000 employees.
In April this year Robert Cunico was working at a waste water treatment plant when he was struck and killed by a pipe that broke free when it was filled with compressed air.
In 2016, German backpacker Marianka Heumann fell 13 stories down an elevator shaft on a Perth construction site while working without a harness.
In 2015, Irish backpackers Gerard Bradley and Joseph McDermott were standing outside work in East Perth when they were fatally injured by unsecured 3-ton concrete tilt-up panels that fell from a trailer. The transport company responsible for the panels was fined just $160,000. Jaxon Construction, responsible for the site, was not fined.
In the preceding months, a worker on the Jaxon site lost the tip of their finger, and a piece of scaffolding fell six storeys onto the roof of a nearby restaurant. Jaxon repeatedly denied the CFMEU access to the site.
In 2007 Luke Murrie, 22, was helping to assemble a crane when he was crushed to death by 375kg of equipment. The company and directors were fined $125,000.
The construction union (now the CFMMEU) and the families of the victims of workplace deaths are calling for industrial manslaughter laws that jail bosses for killing a worker to be adopted in Western Australia.
There is no question that it is corner-cutting to save money and maximise profits on the part of construction bosses which leads to unsafe conditions.
As state secretary of the CFMMEU, Mick Buchan, has put it: “Companies are systematically, knowingly and deliberately underquoting on projects to secure tenders knowing full well that they will never, ever be able to recoup their investment without the extreme corner-cutting and price gouging that critically undermines basic workplace safety. Safety costs money. And it’s a cost that companies have decided they don’t want to pay”.
The widespread use of casual workers and labour hire in construction, one of Australia’s most dangerous industries, means many workers are reluctant to speak up about safety out of fear that they won’t have a shift the next day.
Added to this, safety officers are often appointed by management rather than elected by the workers, a product of the weakening of unions on construction sites. This makes it easier for management to victimise workers who raise safety concerns.
And the punishment for killing a worker due to an unsafe building site is little more than loose change for multi-million dollar construction companies.
Rather than punishing bosses whose morally bankrupt business model costs lives, the Liberal government has done everything in its power to criminalise unions that stand up for safety. Most recently Scott Morrison threatened to deregister the CFMMEU over a tweet.
Union power needs to be defended and rebuilt so workers can better stand up against bosses who treat them as disposable commodities and so that further deaths can be prevented.