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Chief Executive Officer’s year in review

This year – our 10th year – I am prouder of the work of the agency than ever before. We’ve tackled new and significant public health issues through the bushfire season and COVID-19 pandemic head on, and our vision of healthy, safe and productive working lives has never felt more front of mind.

Safe Work Australia was established as an independent statutory agency in 2009 to develop national policy for work health and safety (WHS) and workers’ compensation. We have achieved a lot over the past 10 years, but most importantly we can see real, tangible improvements to health and safety outcomes with significant reductions in the incidence of work-related death, injury and illness. Worker fatality rates have dropped by over 30% and there have also been substantial improvements in health and safety outcomes in priority industries, including agriculture, forestry and fishing; construction; and manufacturing.

Fatalities in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry, which has the highest rate of worker fatalities of all industries, decreased by over 40% in the past decade. Over the same period, fatalities in the construction industry decreased by over 45% and fatalities in the manufacturing industry by over 30%. Between 2008–09 and 2017–18, the rate of serious workers’ compensation claims for work-related injuries and diseases in Australia decreased by 26%.

However, we can’t afford to be complacent. Tragically, in 2019, 183 workers were killed at work in Australia; and more than 114,000 serious workers’ compensation claims were made for injuries and diseases sustained at work in 2018–19. The personal, social and economic costs of work-related fatality, injury and illness are devastating, and reducing these costs continues to be the key driver of our work.

The challenges we all faced this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic make the importance of our work even clearer.

The wide-reaching impacts of the pandemic are like nothing we have seen before, and our response to COVID-19 has undoubtedly been our most challenging yet significant achievement this year, if not in our 10-year history.

Working collaboratively and with agility, the agency and Safe Work Australia Members produced a comprehensive suite of work health and safety guidance and resources, coordinating a national position on issues and developing material and resources to support safe work practices.

Through our informed, practical and timely COVID-19 guidance, we have built Safe Work Australia’s profile and reputation in government, industry and the community as a trusted source of WHS information. The challenge of COVID-19 will be with us for some time, and we will continue to work with our Members and key stakeholders to refine and update our materials, and play our part in keeping Australians safe.

In 2019–20 the devastating summer bushfires also presented new WHS challenges. To help keep workers and others safe, we developed new, practical guidance on managing WHS risks from air pollution and bushfires.

Despite the challenges of these emerging issues, we also made good progress on long-term strategic projects.

In particular, we continued an important program of work to review the workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants. This work is vital to manage workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals in workplaces. During the reporting period, we undertook public consultation on 469 draft evaluation reports for individual chemicals to ensure the standards meet the needs of contemporary Australian workplaces. The workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica was prioritised as part of the review, and WHS ministers, on the recommendation of Safe Work Australia Members, subsequently agreed that the exposure standard would be lowered. This change has now been implemented in most jurisdictions. We also undertook education and awareness activities, including translating guidance on working with silica and silica-containing products into 6 languages other than English.

A core function of the agency’s work has continued to be compiling evidence and research to support the development of evidence-based national WHS and workers’ compensation policies. We have continued to develop and maintain data to understand national trends, address existing and emerging issues and gain insights to inform WHS and workers’ compensation policy and practice. The agency also published a report providing a detailed examination of the causes, impacts and prevention of work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

The National Return to Work Strategy 2020–2030 came into effect from 1 January 2020. This strategy is a milestone achievement, setting out a 10-year vision for minimising the impact of work-related injury and illness and enabling workers to have a timely, safe and durable return to work.

We also continued to build community awareness and knowledge of WHS and workers’ compensation. Through National Safe Work Month and other communication activities we have promoted nationally consistent approaches to managing WHS hazards and risks to a range of audiences. Our communication response to the COVID-19 pandemic saw our website widely used as the trusted source of nationally relevant, timely and practical WHS guidance for Australian workplaces. This was reflected in unprecedented website traffic volumes, with over 5 million page views for our COVID-19 content from January to June 2020.

As we look to the future, we are looking at new ways Safe Work Australia can contribute to healthier, safer and more productive workplaces.

Our achievements in developing high-quality and timely COVID-19 WHS guidance have highlighted an opportunity to review the way we conduct our business within the scope of the Safe Work Australia Act 2008 (Cth) to ensure this success continues. There is the opportunity for us to harness momentum and build on our success, further raising Safe Work Australia’s profile as the national policy body for WHS and workers’ compensation.

The agency will continue to progress our occupational lung disease work plan, including developing a model Code of Practice for working with engineered stone. Work will also continue on developing strategic policies and advice on emerging issues, including the application of the model WHS laws in the gig economy and guidance on sexual harassment.

The development of a new Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy will also be a key focus for the agency and Safe Work Australia Members looking forward.

We acknowledge that the challenge of COVID-19, and the impact it is having on the way we live and work, will also continue to be a key priority for some time to come.

It is an immense privilege to lead an agency that has made a real positive difference for Australian workers. While I am hugely proud of what we have achieved this past year, there is always more work to do. Through a collaborative effort with our Members, we will continue to drive improvements in WHS outcomes and workers’ compensation arrangements. Together we can make our workplaces as safe as they can be for all Australians.