Study highlights risks of economic growth for WA workforce

Friday, 14 May, 2021

Research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has highlighted a concerning trend, revealing that economic growth in Western Australia could lead to more workplace injuries, particularly as the state’s economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. ECU PhD candidate Tanya Jenke noted that WA’s manufacturing industry is built on small to medium-sized businesses, which can be sensitive to rapid changes in the economy.

“In boom times more people are hired, more work comes in, and the demands on the workforce and infrastructure increases. This puts a lot of strain on small businesses and sometimes workplace safety is compromised. With a growing focus on manufacturing in WA’s future, it’s more important than ever for businesses to understand their workplace risks and ensure they have the resources and structures in place to protect their workers,” said Jenke.

The study analysed 577,778 occupational injuries in Western Australia between 2003 and 2019 and found that injuries in the manufacturing and construction industries increased as the economy improved.

The manufacturing industry had the highest increase in workplace injuries as businesses expanded, with 1% growth in gross state product (GSP) resulting in a 0.2% increase in injuries. This is nearly double the rate of the construction industry, which recorded a rise of 0.12% in injuries over the same period.

Jenke attributed this trend to an increased reliance on contract and casual workers with limited knowledge of manufacturing hazards and processes.

“In manufacturing, there’s machinery and processes that have safety risks. Increased workloads can lead to less downtime for machinery, longer work hours, higher stress [and] new staff, and the combination of these factors can sometimes lead to more work injuries. When the demands are high, mistakes can happen and the safety structures and systems in place can be stretched,” said Jenke.

While the manufacturing and construction sectors recorded spikes in workplace injuries, the mining sector bucked the trend with workplace injuries decreasing as economic conditions improved. Jenke posits that this could be because mining has very high safety standards and employee training programs, due to the high-risk nature of the work.

“It was quite interesting to find that a typically high-risk industry actually improved safety. Western Australia’s mining industry is also dominated by large global companies with the resources, infrastructure and organisational resilience to withstand fluctuating economic conditions,” said Jenke.

Jenke added that the study highlights the importance of businesses understanding the patterns of occupational injuries.

“This information will help organisations ensure they can implement more effective and resilient safety systems and quickly identify when they might need to act,” said Jenke.

Image credit: © Stock Arts

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