Australia: ACT Construction Safety Update - Inquiry to Improvement


In 2012, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) had the highest rate of workplace injury in all of Australia with 1 in 40 workers likely to sustain a serious workplace injury. Tragically, 4 workers lost their lives, prompting an industry inquiry into ACT construction safety.

In 2012, the ACT Government commissioned an independent inquiry into workplace health and safety (WHS) regarding the ACT construction industry (Inquiry). The Inquiry was established in September 2012 to investigate compliance with, and the application of, WHS laws in the ACT construction industry, following the fourth workplace death in less than a year.

The results of the Inquiry were released in the Getting Home Safely Report (Report) which found that a substantial overhaul of safety culture across the ACT construction industry was required to facilitate change and reduce workplace deaths and serious injury.

The Report, released on 26 November 2012 identified a number of factors contributing to the ACT's distressing workplace safety statistics, including:

  • a culture of complacency – accepting of the incidence and inevitability of workplace injury;
  • the burden of additional safety compliance costs in an already competitive industry;
  • pressures to complete work within budget and time constraints;
  • lack of training and education and an overemphasis on paperwork; and
  • a fundamental misunderstanding of how to identify, assess and control risks.

The Report found that systemic reforms are required across the construction sector and industry bodies. The Report made 28 recommendations to improve workplace safety summarised as follows:

Sector Recommendations
ACT Government
  • Review powers and responsibilities with the ATO, Fair Work Australia and other Agencies to eradicate sham contracting practices
  • Consider powers and responsibilities under ACT workers compensation legislation and use data for assessing work safety compliance
  • Champion a national approach to registration of engineers
  • Provide input into White Card training and review all current training arrangements
  • Increase infringement provisions and publish notices
  • Collaborate and co-ordinate worksite targets and enforcement systems
  • Develop and implement Shared Services Procurements 'active certification'
  • Incorporate safety considerations into tender selection processes
Safe Work Australia
  • Work with industry to develop training and information across jurisdictions, including training for health and safety committee members
ACT Building and Construction Industry Training Fund Authority
  • Align subsidisation of training costs with high priority areas
WorkSafe ACT (also the Regulator)
  • Develop training and guidance for all levels within industry on risk management
  • Provide education and enforcement activities
  • 12 new inspector positions and possibly 2 legal staff for prosecutions
Master Builders Association (MBA) and Housing Industry Association (HIA)
  • Promote safety culture on worksites
  • Work with the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner and employers to prioritise practical safety initiatives over paperwork
  • Lead the development of clear frameworks for safety management on worksites, including allocation of responsibility for oversight of safety
  • Recommend minimum competencies and training
  • Investigate viability of cadetship program for construction industry project managers
Principal contractors
  • Place a greater emphasis on induction
  • Accept responsibility for conduct of subcontractors, and impose appropriate safety requirements for size of subcontractor
  • Provide education and guidance on toolbox talks and induction

Steps towards improvement
Despite the rejection of two key recommendations from lead industry player, MBA in March 2013 (concerning the development of safety frameworks on ACT construction sites, and provision of guidance on responsibility for oversighting safety, minimum training and competency requirements), momentum towards change is developing pace:

Organisation Action
ACT Government
  • Accepted all recommendations within the Report in Feb 2013
  • Has committed to establishing an Industrial Magistrates Court in the ACT
  • Has stated it is considering engaging a dedicated WHS expert to promote cultural change
  • Is considering introducing random impairment testing on construction sites
  • Is working on producing a set of national housing code of practice guidelines to target safety
National workers compensation insurer, GIO
  • Announced in March 2013 that it was likely to pass the cost of new levies to improve construction industry safety in the ACT on to employers
ACT WorkSafe
  • Has scheduled the 2013 Work Safety Conference 'Building Safety - Bridging the Gap' on 1-2 June 2013. The Conference will build on the findings and reinforce the learning from the Report for the construction industry.
  • Norton Rose Australia's Occupational Health Safety and Security (OHSS) team will be conducting a mock court hearing at the 2013 Work Safety Conference 'Building Safety - Bridging the Gap'. The hearing will be moderated by Alena Titterton, Special Counsel in the Canberra OHSS team, and is designed to illustrate the legal ramifications which a company and its directors may face if charged with breaches of the WHS Act in the aftermath of a construction industry workplace tragedy.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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