When daddy didn’t come home…

“WHS compliance is a pain in the —-” business owners and managers sometimes grumble – and it does take valuable time, money and resources – but when you think about the alternative, the way we used to do things, that safety is worth everything we invest in it and more!

As Zokal approach our 40th. anniversary in work health & safety, I’ve been reflecting on the old days and it almost seems surreal when you look at it through the prism of the Work Health Safety we’re familiar with.

Australian statistics from the 1970’s are hard to get, but here are some eye openers from the US: We know the US lost a lot of soldiers in vietnam during that era, but I bet you didn’t know they lost just as many people at home through accidents at work!

In 1968 for instance, 14,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam while 14,000 workers died in the US, on the job. 46,000 soldiers were wounded that same year, while a staggering 2.5 million workers suffered disabling injuries back in the US. You could almost conclude that the military was a safer bet for American workers back then.

Australia was not a whole lot different. When I look at deaths in mining in that era (an industry we’re very familiar with), accidents would routinely claim the lives of 10 – 20 miners: 17 in Ipswitch 1972; 13 in Moura colliery, QLD in 1975; 14 in Appin colliery, NSW, 1978 – A lot of coal miners did not go home to their families. They were trapped or killed by explosions and there were no adequate resources to get them out safely.

Contrast those with accidents this century like Tasmania’s Beaconsfield Mine collapse in 2006. Of the 17 miners affected, only one was killed while 14 escaped immediately and the remaining two were rescued five days later.

In fact as I write this, we’re working on a tender to refurbish a number of breathing air quick refill stations for a major coal mine – stations designed to refill the air cylinders on the Compressed Air Breathing Apparatus of miners in the event of an accident in the mine. These precautionary measures were nonexistent back in the 70’s.

It wasn’t just mining – look at vehicular accidents back then: 3,798 people died on Australian roads in 1970 – a rate of 30.4 fatalities per 100,000 people. Many of these were workers in the transportation industry and people driving work vehicles on the job: police officers, security guards, tradesmen etc.

Hazardous materials like asbestos were handled without protection, causing agonising deaths for thousands more Australian workers. Working for a living was a risky business!

Behind these sterile numbers were a lot of very real human tragedies – fathers and mothers not coming home to their children, families being torn apart and plunged into financial hardship – and a lot of emotional scars that probably never healed… Looking back, it was really unacceptable for any modern society and we should have moved much more quickly to reduce the risks and the number of tragedies.

I’m proud and even honoured that I was able to play a leading role in the WHS industry, right through those dark years and I’m sure that as a result of our role, many NSW workers made it home safely. Tough WHS legislation is something we as a community should be grateful for – It’s not perfect, but we’ll keep striving to improve it and keep our workplaces as safe as possible.

I’m going to document some of my personal WHS memories in coming months and I would love to hear about yours. Who has memories of working 30 or 40 years ago? Were you affected by workplace accidents or illness? Do you remember the safety procedures and precautions back then? What do you think about today’s WHS legislation?