Part One


“As a rule, the horse used to pull up the barrows is covered-in. He would cost £40 to £50 to replace. A labourer would cost only a sixpenny advertisement.”

Dick Loughnan, ABLF organiser.[1]

1,020 words

Addressing the NSW Legislative Assembly in support of the 1882 Employers’ Liability Bill, the undertaker and member for Newtown explained the frequency of injuries on building sites:

The desire, however, to amass wealth, and to make large profits out of works they have undertaken, leads contractors in some cases to use unsafe scaffolding and other appliances of make-shift character if they can evade responsibility. It is said that men ought not to work on unsafe scaffolding, but with most workmen it is a matter of earning their bread, and too often they are careless even in their own interests.[2]

One contractor admitted in 1888 that, a few of his kind, “having no scaffolding of their own, borrowed some, and made a little of it go a long way, a much longer way than was compatible with safety.”[3] Some scaffolding was as thin as clothes props – “that is where the danger comes in”, a union official added in 1913.[4]

The bad old days continued.

A photograph in the September 1983 issue of the journal of the NSW Master Builders’ Association (MBA) revealed that the attitude of the bosses towards Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) remained as shameless as that of contractors 100 years earlier. A young man is shown repairing the façade of the Main Roads Building in Sydney. He has no helmet. He is up at least 20m. on a platform without safety rails. The caption explains that he is applying an epoxy concrete. The employer has not issued him with gloves, goggles or mask against that poison. The conditions in which he will wash up are predictable. In the caption, the MBA spelt out the priorities for capital: “One factor which adds to the cost of repair of [concrete] failure is the difficult access.”[5] The picture illustrated how the employer had cut that cost at the expense of the worker’s health and safety. At the same time as the MBA published this proof of its member’s irresponsibility, it was pushing to de-register the Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (ABLF) as a rogue union.

The story of builders’ labourers could be told through their struggles for safer and healthier workplaces. After five State unions federated in 1910, the Branches endorsed a Log of Claims which gave as much attention to amenities, safety and compensation as to hours and wages.[6] For a builder’s labourer, no workplace demand has held more importance than secure scaffolding. Injuries and deaths around scaffolding have been so persistent that building workers could be forgiven for associating “scaffold” with place of execution. After all, the Elizabethan hangman Thomas Derrick gave his name to a crane.

Scaffolds mean life or death throughout the building trades. Painters, plasterers, masons, plumbers and carpenters are at risk when working on or beneath scaffolding. For example, in 1915, a 30-year old, married painter, Sydney Thom, of Brunswick, died in hospital three weeks after fracturing his skull and breaking a leg in a fall. On 9 July 1999, a man painting a roof in North Melbourne fell 10m. to his death.[7]

The reasons why scaffolding has continued to be so dangerous have shifted over time. The degree of security depends on legislation and its enforcement, on the vigilance of the unionists at each site, and on changes in the technology of construction. Builders’ labourers fell because there were not enough planks, ropes or handrails to protect them as they manoeuvred to perform their tasks. Others were injured when the scaffolding gave way under them; it either had been inexpertly erected, or made from shoddy materials. Scaffolds also collapsed onto men at lower levels, bringing down building materials and equipment. More often, those working below were in danger because walk-ways and floors had not been covered in, with the result that “bricks and other things are flying like feathers (only heavier).”[8] Bricks did not drop straight but ricocheted from joist to joist, making them doubly dangerous to those below.[9]

The compulsion on the men to take a stand against their conditions is in the statistics. Between 1880 and 1884, workplace injuries in Melbourne resulted in 410 admissions to hospital; one in eight of these patients came from the building trades.[10] Too little changed across the next 120 years. The Queensland rates of damage were typical. In 1963, building workers made up 10 percent of the Queensland workforce but suffered 20 percent of the workplace injuries. During 1968-69, they were again twice as likely to lose time from injuries.[11]

From 1989 to 1993, 250 workers were killed on construction sites across Australia.[12] That number was 12% of all workplace fatalities, although the industry employed only 5% of the labour force. In addition, one building worker in five needed five or more days off from an injury.[13] By the late 1990s, one was being killed each week somewhere in Australia, twice to three times the national averages, while 14,000 building workers were being compensated each year.[14] These numbers are misleading because they leave out diseases that take time to develop, such as asbestosis and cancers, and because all the statistics are still inadequate.[15]

Among building workers, labourers suffered most because their tasks have been more hazardous than those of most tradesmen. Rates of injury to building workers were halved between 1971 and 1985, falling to 157 in every 1,000. For labourers, the incidence stayed a third higher, at 204 per 1,000. By early 1987, 28% of NSW members of the Building Workers Industrial Union were BLs but they made about 70% of the compensation claims handled by the union office.[16]

To reduce this misery and violence, workers battled against the rapaciousness and mean-spiritedness of employers. The labourers suffered under the viciousness and hypocrisy of lawmakers. The men endured laziness and corruption among the inspectors paid to protect them, and from similar failings in some of their officials. A framework of flesh documents these experiences across 130 years.  

[1] Builders’ Labourers’ News (BLN), 24 December 1915 , p. 3.

[2] NSW, Parliamentary Debates, vol. XIX, 14 May 1886 , pp. 1970-71.

[3] Australian Builders’ and Contractors’ News, 7 July 1888 , p. 2, quoted Jeff Rich, “Victorian Building Workers and their Unions, 1880s”, Ph.D. Thesis, ANU, 1993, p. 101.

[4] Transcript of 1913 Award Hearings in the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation v A. W. Archer, Australian Archives B1958 (B1958/1) 9/1912,  p. 515 (hereafter 1913 Transcript).

[5] Builder NSW, September 1983, p. 573.

[6] 7 Commonwealth Arbitration Reports (1913) 210 at 213-4.

[7] Herald, 12 May 1915, p. 1; NSCA’s Australian Safety, November 2000, p. 53; see also Noni Holmes and Fergus Robertson, OPDU fall protection handbook, OPDU, Melbourne, 1990, pp. 6-12.

[8] BLN, 24 December 1915 , p. 3.

[9] 1913 Transcript, p. 369.

[10] E. C. Fry, “The condition of the urban wage-earners in the 1880s”, Ph.D. Thesis, ANU, 1956, pp. 362-3.

[11] Queensland Master Builder, 18 June 1964 , p. 3.

[12] Work-related traumatic fatalities, 1989 to 1992, National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, Camperdown, 1998, p. 3.

[13] Greg Foley, “Construction industry occupational health safety performance overview, Australia 1992-93”, Journal of Occupational Health & Safety Australia and New Zealand (JOH&S ANZ), 13 (1), February 1997, p. 92.

[14] Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry, Final Report, AGPS, Canberra , 2003, volume 6, p. 157.

[15] National Safety, October 2007, pp. 33-35; M. Sim, “The need for an occupational disease surveillance system in Australia ”, JOH&S ANZ, 23 (6), December 2007, p. 557.

[16] Building Worker, July 1987, p. 16.

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