Unions NSW Secretary Mark Morey said he was concerned that SafeWork had not pursued a single prison sentence this year given 47 workplace deaths have so far been recorded.
“I am also deeply concerned about understaffing at SafeWork NSW,” he said.
“It stands to reason that with fewer people available to inspect workplaces, there will be fewer inspections and, overall, a more lax approach to workplace safety.”
Mr Morey said answers to parliamentary questions on notice had revealed that almost one in 10 positions within SafeWork NSW are vacant. He asked the Premier to look into what action was being taken to fill the vacant positions “to ensure that it can properly scrutinise workplace safety”.
He also called on the government to have SafeWork NSW put under scrutiny to ensure the rate of workplace safety inspections and prosecutions was high enough to ensure the safety of workers.
Mr Morey said proposals to restructure SafeWork NSW by breaking it into six sections under two ministers would further “dilute” its capacity to regulate safety in NSW.
“It is clearly already lacking the necessary resources to effectively prosecute offenders and prevent ongoing worker fatalities,” Mr Morey said.
The concerns have been raised less than a week after the workers compensation scheme came under the scathing criticism of an independent review that found one in four injured employees are not returning to their jobs.
The State Insurance Regulatory Authority commissioned external consultant Janet Dore supported by Ernst & Young actuaries to conduct an independent review of the scheme.
The review revealed the return-to-work rate has plummeted from 96 per cent in 2016 to 73 per cent in 2019.
The NSW government reformed the scheme in 2012 to address a $4 billion deficit. When it introduced the changes, the O’Farrell government said a key aim was to improve the return-to-work rate. The changes included removal of claims relating to travelling to and from work, and cuts to benefits for injured workers. Weekly benefits were capped at five years.
The review found that the main state government workers compensation insurer EML had an “alarming” rate of staff turnover. It is losing 22.7 per cent of its employees every month.
With fewer people available to inspect workplaces, there will be fewer inspections and, overall, a more lax approach to workplace safety.
Unions NSW Secretary Mark Morey
The State Insurance Regulatory Authority regulates icare, a NSW government insurer that provides workers compensation and care for employers and injured workers, primarily through contracted insurer EML.
EML’s “deteriorating performance trends” were also criticised and included poor file management and a poor understanding of, and skills required for, achieving better outcomes.
A spokesman for SafeWork NSW said it has a “zero-tolerance approach to those who put workers’ lives at risk and does not hesitate to prosecute when matters warrant it”.
“Workplace behaviour is improving and NSW is on track for a reduction in fatalities and injuries,” the spokesman said.
“Targeted compliance programs have resulted in improved workplace behaviour, so it makes sense there’s a reduction in the number of interactions in the first half of this financial year compared to the last financial year.”
The spokesman said SafeWork takes staff recruitment very seriously.
“It’s of utmost importance the right person is recruited for the right role to ensure SafeWork’s high standards are upheld,” he said.
Anna Patty is Workplace Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald. She is a former Education Editor, State Political Reporter and Health Reporter.