The NSW government has bowed to pressure to hold an inquiry into the state’s workplace safety regulator SafeWork NSW, after revelations it was slow to act on safety warnings.
The alleged tardy response from the regulator includes a case where SafeWork NSW delayed inspecting a site when a man died after a 23 tonne skip loader reversed over him.
It had received four separate alerts about waste management company Aussie Skips two years before the fatality, including two a month before the tragic event, a parliamentary committee heard on Friday.
SafeWork received a notification – known as a request for service (RFS) – from a subcontractor on April 23, 2018, then a separate anonymous tip on May 4, 2018, 20 days before the fatal accident. But it didn’t do an onsite inspection of the Aussie Skips site until May 24, the day the father of two died.
In another case, a 59-year-old salvage worker was killed by a yacht mast after a crane with an unlicensed driver lost its load on January 27, 2021. SafeWork had been tipped off six weeks earlier that crane drivers weren’t licensed and a person had been “pinned by a pile on the tugs”. However, an onsite inspection didn’t take place until the day of the fatality.
Just over a year after this death, on February 14, 2022, SafeWork received a fresh tip-off that the company was still using crane operators that weren’t licensed for a slew crane, along with other practises that “put others at risk”.
Despite the company’s poor track record, SafeWork failed to conduct an onsite visit until it received a further safety alert on May 2021, when it sent out an inspector to visit the site a week later.
Last month The Sydney Morning Herald exposed serious issues in SafeWork including a culture of bullying, high churn of inspectors and inspectors alleging they were subjected to political interference.
The masthead also obtained a briefing document prepared for the regulator’s so-called Investigation Decision Making Panel, which revealed the process was flawed. Even as a company was found to have serious safety contraventions and a history of prohibition notices and improvement notices, SafeWork dismissed recommendations to prosecute the company.
The auditor-general announced this month it would initiate a performance audit into SafeWork following a series of letters and meetings, with opposition work health and safety spokeswoman Sophie Cotsis raising concerns that serious work health and safety breaches weren’t being properly followed up by SafeWork with on-site inspections.
This week the government announced a review into SafeWork by retired NSW Supreme Court judge Robert McDougall after rejecting repeated calls for an inquiry for almost two years.
The relevant minister Victor Dominello said in a statement: “This review will look at issues raised in recent weeks and provide the government with independent insights that will be both powerful and instructive.”
However, the head of SafeWork, Natasha Mann, told the parliamentary hearing on Friday that the terms of reference for the review would be determined by McDougall and SafeWork, raising issues about its independence.
Cotsis described it as an “extraordinary revelation” and said it was extremely concerning that the safety regulator was helping draft the terms of reference.
She said Dominello needed to intervene and ensure the process was conducted at arm’s length from “the very agency that has allowed safety breaches to go without proper, thorough investigation”.
SafeWork was created in 2015 when the state’s former workers’ compensation scheme, WorkCover, was split into three entities: icare, SIRA and SafeWork.
The latter was set up as an independent statutory body responsible for regulating work, health and safety and reducing work-related fatalities, serious injuries and illnesses. It was absorbed into the Department of Customer Service in 2015 with neither a separate board, nor CEO, nor an oversight body.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald