Master Builders speak out on safety in the building and construction industry

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Kirk Conningham

Article by Kirk Coningham OAM, Executive Director Master Builders ACT

THERE is no more important issue in the building and construction industry than safety. We all know that so long as a single person is harmed at work we have more work to do.

While statistics are improving in Canberra it is disturbingly apparent that, as an industry, we have more to do on safety than most.

Today we have better training, better procedures, better attitudes and better regulation but still no miracle cure for what is a dangerous industry. Improvements will be hard won and incremental as we integrate the concept of safety into all that we do.

Midst all of this uncertainty there is one point on which all of the experts agree. The best safety outcomes are achieved when everyone involved, from the first year apprentice to the most successful builders and developers, are fully empowered and accountable for safety.

This demands a level of understanding, cooperation, trust and respect that is entirely counter to the tactics employed in our industry today by the CFMEU. These tactics have workers at war with bosses. There is zero room for collaboration between enemy combatants.

Less cooperation equals poorer safety.

Businesses are bullied and coerced into signing up to union EBAs, and the unions claim one of the principle deliveries for this is safer work sites. The evidence doesn’t support this case. Of the four tragic deaths that occurred in the Territory a couple of years ago three happened under union EBAs.

Like the rest of industry, the union has no silver bullet on safety.

Our experience is that, once repeated disruptions under the guise of ‘safety’ have successfully intimidated businesses into signing EBAs, most if not all of the safety issues that had been so pressing miraculously disappear.

This disguises what is potentially one of the most significant factors impacting on safety on construction sites. The repeated use of ‘safety’ as a means to achieving industrial and commercial interests effectively diminishes its true importance.

Like the boy who called wolf, the union has effectively blunted the message. The shameless way this is done also impacts on the capacity for people with real safety concerns to feel empowered to raise them immediately as they occur.

The union also routinely uses safety as a smokescreen. The standard reply to any accusation, from bullying and intimidation, from bribery to extortion, from damning evidence at a Royal Commission – the answer is always ‘we need to fight for safety’.

The irony is that the union does have real expertise on safety. If it abandoned its false class war on bosses, and stopped using safety as an excuse and a smokescreen, its message and delivery on safety would be far more effective.

Perhaps the silver bullet on safety will come, sometime in the future, when we can work in true collaboration to fix our most pressing issue. Through its repeated actions in its ‘war’ against bosses the CFMEU in the ACT has destroyed the trust that is essential in this process.

When mistakes are counted in fingers and toes, and sometimes lives, it remains incumbent on us all to do a whole lot better.

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