The hidden workplace death toll

Monday, 28 April, 2008

Australia’s official workplace death toll — between 200 and 300 per year — could be just the tip of the iceberg, according to the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA).

SIA Victoria president Phillip Kamay said the most recent national figures estimate the real toll to be in excess of 2000 deaths each year.

“The problem is that many occupational diseases, like cancers, can take decades to develop and their connection with work is often difficult to prove in court,” he said.

Today, on World Day for Safety and Health at Work, SIA Victoria and OHS professional Sheryl Dell, from Melbourne’s Safety In Action Conference, are calling for recognition of the ‘hidden’ workplace death toll.

“Yes, it’s a tragedy when someone goes to work and never comes home, but thousands more — like my father — come home to die,” said Dell, who will be chairing one of the streams at the conference.

Dell’s father lost his battle with mesothelioma in February after recovering from a series of injuries, including a year of blindness, sustained over his career as an industrial chemist. The recognition of the hidden death toll has particular significance to her and her family.

“My father had to fight disbelief as well as the disease,” she said.

“In the end, he joined a class action and got a small payout that helped him pay for healthcare. It wasn’t about money though. What we really wanted was to hear someone say ‘I’m sorry’.”

It was a double injustice for Dell. Long before losing her father to the deadly workplace cancer, her family had to deal with his year of blindness that followed a chemical splash.

“We had to tip-toe around him,” Dell said. “We never had friends to visit because it was too hard to explain why there was this angry man sitting alone in the dark.

“He found it very difficult to deal with and it ground my mother down. She never was the same happy-go-lucky person ever again — it was a real loss of innocence. I had only just begun to appreciate him and discover how much we could share when I lost him forever.”

When corporate high fliers, including Ziggy Switkowski and ANZ chairman Jerry Ellis, address the Safety In Action Conference tomorrow, Dell will be listening and hoping for signs of change.

“Around 140,000 Australian workers are injured so badly each year that they need to take at least a week off work,” she said.

“My father’s blindness was a dark time for all of us. Injury management has come a long way but thousands of families suffering in this way every week is unacceptable.”

The Safety In Action Conference starts tomorrow and runs until Thursday at the Melbourne Convention Centre, while the concurrently held Safety In Action trade show will be at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre.


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