BLF - OHS - INTRODUCTION: PART ONE - SCAFFOLDING
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:
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.
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.”
Some scaffolding was as thin as clothes props – “that is where the
danger comes in”, a union official added in 1913.
bad old days continued.
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
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
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. 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.
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.
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
Bricks did not drop straight but ricocheted from joist to joist, making
them doubly dangerous to those below.
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. 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.
1989 to 1993, 250 workers were killed on construction sites across
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Builders’ Labourers’ News
NSW, Parliamentary Debates,
Australian Builders’ and
 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).
 Builder NSW, September 1983, p. 573.
 7 Commonwealth Arbitration Reports (1913) 210 at 213-4.
 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.
 1913 Transcript, p. 369.
 E. C. Fry, “The condition of the urban wage-earners in the 1880s”, Ph.D. Thesis, ANU, 1956, pp. 362-3.
Queensland Master Builder,
 Work-related traumatic fatalities, 1989 to 1992, National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, Camperdown, 1998, p. 3.
Greg Foley, “Construction industry occupational health safety
Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry,
Final Report, AGPS,
National Safety, October
2007, pp. 33-35; M. Sim, “The need for an occupational disease
surveillance system in
 Building Worker, July 1987, p. 16.