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Four Years On – PM Apologises for Insulation Deaths

Source: CCH Law Chat 5th July 2013

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has apologised for the deaths of three tradespersons killed while installing ceiling insulation under the federal government’s Home Insulation Program. The apology followed findings of the Queensland Coroner that the government had failed to adequately assess the risks associated with its Home Insulation Program.

Background

The federal government rolled out the $2.45 billion Home Insulation Program in 2009 to stimulate the economy during the global financial crisis. Three young Queenslanders died in separate incidents during 2009 and 2010 while carrying out the installation work

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in ceilings (another young worker died in New South Wales later).

Queensland Coroner’s findings and recommendations

Queensland Coroner Michael Barnes released his findings on 4 July 2013. His primary findings related to the failings of the Commonwealth.

Mr Barnes found that while some safety implications had been considered, the federal government had miscalculated the extent of the risks. In particular, the risk of electrocution was given very little attention.

According to Mr Barnes, two factors contributed to this oversight:

  • the speed with which the program was conceived, designed and implemented (announced in February 2009 and commenced in July 2009); and
  • reliance on administrative arrangements to implement the system, rather than legislation.

While acknowledging that workplace safety is a state government responsibility, Mr Barnes said it was reasonable to expect that regard would be had to possible safety implications where the Commonwealth Government was funding a program designed to create employment for unskilled and unemployed workers.

The state coroner also made the following additional findings:

  • The Electrical Safety Office and Workplace Health and Safety Queensland did not get sufficiently involved when invited to take a nationally co-ordinated approach to worker safety, and in response to risks increased by the Commonwealth’s failings in implementing the program;
  • The issue of electrical safety in the installation process did not feature sufficiently in the DEWHA’s communications with registered installers;
  • There was a compromise on competency and training requirements for a speedy rollout of the program; and
  • There was a false assumption that supervision requirements would be adhered to, even though the program allowed installers to subcontract work to other entities or individuals.

The Coroner went on to

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make the following recommendations:

  • The Office of Fair and Safe Work Queensland should conduct a review into why state-based workplace safety agencies failed to proactively respond to the risks heightened by the failings of Commonwealth agencies;
  • The Office of Fair and Safe Work Queensland should undertake a public awareness campaign so that home occupiers and tradespersons are aware of the electrocution risks inherent in residential roof spaces; and
  • The state government should prioritise the mandatory installation of safety switches in all homes.

Also referring to the failings of the deceased workers’ employers, Mr Barnes stressed:

“The younger the worker, the less training and experience he or she has and the greater the intrinsic danger of the work or the work place the more responsibility shifts to the employer to ensure employees are properly trained, equipped and supervised”.

PM’s apology

Accepting the Coroner’s findings, Mr Rudd apologised on behalf of the Australian Government:

“I simply say on behalf of the Australian Government, how deeply sorry I am, and of course we apologise without reservation”.

“As the Prime Minister of this country I am deeply sorry for what has occurred and, of course, I apologise for these deaths, given that it was a government program”, Mr Rudd said.

Meanwhile, the Opposition is calling for Mr Rudd to produce warning letters he allegedly received about the risks prior to the deaths of the young workers. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Minister for Environment Greg Hunt have written to Mr Rudd demanding that he release four letters from Mr Garrett in 2009 as well as other warnings Mr Rudd received in the two years leading to the three tragedies.

The Coroner’s report is available here.

A transcript of the PM’s door step interview is available here.

A statement from Resources and Energy Minister Gary Gray is available here.