Safety in the construction industry

CFMEU members work in highly dangerous industries.

Every 6 minutes a worker in the industries that the CFMEU covers is seriously injured or dies – a rate that is 50% higher than the all industry rate.[i] Last year, 17 workers in construction and 10 in mining were killed at work. Fifteen have already died in these two industries in the first half of this year. Workers in forestry and furnishing products also face similarly high fatality rates.[ii] 8.6 labourers out of every 100,000 employed in construction are killed, a rate four times higher than the all industry rate.[iii] Construction workers are most likely to be killed from falls (27%), vehicles (18%), contact with electricity (5%) or being hit by a moving object (13%).[iv] The economic costs of work related injury and illness are estimated to cost $60.6 billion in the 2008–09 financial year or about 4.8% of GDP.[v] Publicly listed companies recording the highest number of fatalities are in construction, mining and logistics (see below).


Australian fatalities

Total fatalities




Rio Tinto



BHP Billiton



Lend Lease



Leighton Holdings



Aquarius Platinum



Toll Holdings



Newcrest Mining



Coca-Cola Amatil



Boral Ltd



Transfield Services



Publicly listed Australian companies with the highest number of fatalities (from 2004-05 to 2012-13)

Publicly listed Australian companies with the highest number of fatalities (from 2004-05 to 2012-13)

Trade unions save lives

The international evidence on health and safety proves that unions save lives. For example:

  • Workers in unionised coal mines in the US had a 14 to 32% drop in traumatic injuries and a 29 to 83% drop in fatalities, according to a 2013 study. [vi]
  • In the UK, manual workers in unionised workplaces were less likely to have a fatal injury according to two studies from 2007.[vii] The UK government estimated that workplace safety representatives saved between 286,000 and 616,000 days of work by reducing workplace injuries and illnesses.[viii]
  • In South Korean unionised workplaces had nearly half the injury and illness rate of non-unionised ones according to a 2011 study.[ix]
  • In the US building and construction industry unionised workplaces were healthier and safer because unions facilitated more inspections with greater scrutiny, as well as pressing employers to correct breaches more quickly, and bear overall higher penalties.[x]

The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) did not lead to improvements in health and safety.

There is no evidence that the ABCC improved health and safety in the construction industry during its operation from 2005 to 2012. As the below table shows, all industries have achieved steady reductions in the rate of serious injury and death since 2000. For construction, the trend in improvements began well before the establishment of the ABCC. It is also clear that other industries achieved greater improvements than construction, without the involvement of a body like the ABCC.

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NB: Adapted from “Claims for serious injury in Australia: Number and incidence rates by detailed industry, time series”.  Base year, 2000-01 = 100.

The ABCC would restrict union representatives ability to act on safety

The Bill to re-establish the ABCC seeks to reduce the circumstances under which an employee or their union can take action to address a workplace health and safety risk. A recent Senate Committee looking into the Bill concluded that its approach to health and safety “politicises the issue in a very dangerous industry”.[xi] If these proposed laws applied when the building unions mounted an industrial campaign to ban the use of asbestos, they and their members would have been exposed to significant fines for action that was instrumental in outlawing the deadly product and saving thousands of lives. It is already difficult enough for health and safety representatives to do their job. An ACTU survey in 2012 found that one in five (21.7%) representatives had been bullied or harassed for raising a health and safety issue. The ABCC Bill will make the work of health and safety reps in the construction and building industries even harder.

Union campaigning is responsible for today’s health and safety system

Unions have won a wide range of health and safety improvements at work. Below are a select few including:

  • Workers compensation laws (1900-1916).
  • New wave of state-based health and safety laws (1972 to 1989).
  • Meal and rest breaks, accident make-up pay, improved conditions in mines, protective clothing, and weight restrictions for lifting. (1960s to 1970s).
  • Greater regulation and bans on thousands of dangerous chemicals (1980s).
  • Health and safety representatives in Victoria secure right to “cease dangerous work” (1985).
  • Ban on asbestos at work secured in 2004 after decades of campaigning (1960s- 2004).
  • Laws and policies to tackle bullying, workplace stress, dangerous hours, repetitive stress injury, etc secured (1990s onwards).

For the full list of union achievements on health and safety see the ACTU’s Health and Safety Timeline – What have unions achieved?[xii]


[i] Based on 20,170 serious incident claims for 2011-12, taken from Safework Australia.
[iii] See page 15
[iv] Safework Australia Construction industry fact sheet 2012.
[vi] Morantz, “Coal Mine Safety: Do unions make a difference?” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 66(1), January 2013
[vii] Grazier, “Compensating wage differentials for risk of death in Great Britain,” Swansea University, 2007; Nichols, Walters and Tasiran, “Trade Unions mediation and industrial safety”, Journal of Industrial Relations, 2007.
[viii] Department of Trade and Industry (UK) (2007) Workplace representatives: a review of their facilities and facility time.
[ix] Yi, Cho and Kim, “An empirical analysis of labor unions and occupational health and safety committees’ activity: Their relation to the changes in occupational injury and illness rate”, Safety and Health at Work, 2011, 2:321-7
[x] Weil, “Building Safety: the Role of Construction Unions in the Enforcement of OSHA”, Journal of Labor Research Vol XIII(1), 1992.
[xi] Senate Education and Employment References Committee (March 2014), Government’s approach to re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
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