BLF - OHS - CHAPTER THREE - 1950 - 2000: THE HARDER THEY FALL
1950 - 2000:THE HARDER THEY FALL
2, 265 words
2, 265 words
MLC offices became a focus of injury and for protest. A carpenter who had
fallen down a lift well in 1956 was still on crutches a year later.
The contractor, Concrete Constructions, had to be heavied into even
discussing safety. Its managers refused to show the educational
documentary, Bones of Building,
on any of its sites. After the carpenter’s fall, the managers said they
would not fix the problems until the men returned to work. The unionists
stayed out until Concrete Construction gave way, putting on a crew of 50
to spend the weekend making the site more secure. The firm also agreed to
employ a full-time first-aid man. Previously, that task had fallen to the
storeman who had to scrub his hands free of grease before he could treat
One demand of the NSW reformers was for one worker on each site to hold a
NSW Building Trades Group (BTG) held its first “Safety Week” in
February 1957. On 18 February, the death of the twenty-seven-year old
electrician from Wollongong, Ken Giles, spotlighted the need for this
campaign. After a period of unemployment, Giles had been on the MLC
building for two weeks when he fell 50m. from a narrow beam, tumbling down
a lift well. Concrete Constructions had not supplied a safety belt. The
men refused to work until the site met the standards in the Act. A meeting
of 500 formed a safety committee of seventeen. They also donated £3 each
for Giles’s widow and four children. Telecasting the presentation of
that £1,500 gave the public an unusual view of worksite activism. The new
Branch Secretary “Banjo” Patterson told his members: “The MLC should
be the safest building in the world, being built for an insurance company.
However, it was only the men on the job who could see that it was made
In September, another 27-year old from Wollongong, Ken Ford, was moving
bricks in a barrow from a hoist when he fell 4m. to his death.
In June 1957, the union had summoned a TV crew to the St Vincent’s hospital site where twelve tons of wet concrete had buckled one of the three supports (toms) into a boomerang shape. News reporting of hazards at work was exceptional. This one got onto television because the novelty of that medium sent camera crews on the lookout for footage which told a story. The print media remained hostile. After the Sydney Morning Herald declined to publish a letter from Patterson refuting allegations by an employer, he advised its editors to “turn to the worker in the building industry for the background … Let them look at our side for a change and make a survey of the work performed by Builders’ Labourers.”
bedeviled the Government Printer’s building in Ultimo. BTG
representatives inspected the site and supplied the project managers with
a list of faults. When union officials returned to check that the law was
being enforced, the contractors called the police to block their entry.
Next day, a mass meeting pressured the Master Builders into joining a
Monday, 6 March 1961, the NSW BWIU complained about a breach of safety at
Housing Commission flats at Surrey Hills. Yet again, Concrete
Constructions did nothing. Four days later, a similar incident killed a
man. Work ceased for the day. On the following Monday, the men asked the
supervisor to declare one section unsafe. He refused on the grounds that
an investigation was due at 10 am: “The starter hooter sounded but no
work commenced.” After a two-hour inspection, an Industrial Commissioner
recommended fourteen changes to fix up safety. He had found guard-rails
and toe-boards missing, openings in the floors, bricks being lifted on
open pallets without side-boards, and bricks stacked above the sides of
lifting boxes on cranes. He ordered that throwing debris out of windows
cease; that loads not traverse over the heads of workers; and that fences
be placed around materials stacked close to edges. He also ruled that the
men be paid for the time they had stopped that day because of the failure
by Concrete Constructions to follow previous directives.
Combined Building Trades Unions had conducted a Safety Month in September
1956, educating members that safety was up to the other bloke. After the
accident was too late to “become aware of the faulty gear or the bad way
that planks were placed over putlocks or joists.”
The 1958 ABLF Council requested the ACTU to push for a national Safety
The next Federal Council voted that all scaffolds be made out of
Duralumin, no plank to be longer than 12 feet, and not hardwood, so that
they were not too heavy to lift. Ladders had to be clear varnished, not painted, since paint concealed cracks.
buildings rarely had external scaffolding all the way up. Most relied on
suspended scaffolding. The 24-storey housing tower on Blues Point beside
Sydney Harbour was exceptional in 1960-61 because of its design.
Around this time, engineers began using slip-forms to construct concrete
walls. Civil & Civic erected Sydney’s Australia Square Tower without
external scaffolding by building the façade “slightly ahead of the main
structure, thus providing a safety barrier”.
Modern methods and materials required new regulations. Carpenters on
Wentworth Chambers refused to hang by one hand “over the edge of the
building like monkeys” while erecting the formwork with the other. A
strike won safety nets and later the redesign of external scaffolds.
The need for vigilance had not changed. For a scaffold to be considered
safe it had to meet five criteria. It had to stand up to the loads put on
it; access had be clear; nothing or no one could fall from it; it had to
be protected against electrical wiring; and it could not be knocked by
passing vehicles. Although falls from buildings and falling materials were
the most common dangers, every aspect of construction needed attention.
Runs, ramps and gangways were danger spots.
Two Sydney BLs were killed in the city by cave-ins during the first half of 1973. In August, police arrested Branch officials after labourers stopped a job in Darling Pt. to secure the struts needed to make the trenches safe. Union photographs revealed a 5.5m face with no shoring.
collapsing trench killed a BL south of Perth in October 1982, the members
struck for four days to make the contractor, Hornibrooks, agree to
adequate shoring. The company still refused to accept responsibility by
not paying for the time the men had stopped. An Arbitration Commissioner
ruled that they get their money because their employer had failed to
ensure safe conditions.
lucky breaks were in spite of the occasional “panic merchant” among
the supervisors who were “a little bit pushy at times”. 
about safety and amenities again overlapped with disputes over wages and
hours. The carpenter reported that no one “has been paid the full amount
of special rates. We have continually had to badger and pester foremen and
leading hands to have our correct payments.”
A stoppage over what seemed to the outsider to a petty matter was usually
the last straw onto a pile of Award violations.
obstacle to licencing scaffolders was that many labourers had minimal
literacy. They knew what to do on site but could not write those knacks
down on an examination paper. The NSW Department of Labour adjusted its
assessment procedures accordingly, while the Technical College also began
granting partial licences.
However, its textbook examples did not help. Instructors were slow to
surrender the skills that had given them status. Hence, decades after
bolts and metal had become the order of the day, the NSW training manual
for scaffolders included pages illustrating rope-and-pole work.
terminology of the regulations derived from ship’s riggers. Its
peculiarities confused newcomers and, even more, those whose first
language was not English. A labourer assisting a scaffolder needed to know
that uprights could be called verticals or standards, and that a puncheon
was a short standard. If told to fetch a horizontal, he had to distinguish
between braces, bearers, catheads, ledgers, and put-logs (aka putlocks).
He had to learn that a “lift” was the distance from ledger to ledger.
labourer to progress from helping a scaffolder to being licenced to carry
out his tasks took time and persistence. He required a knowledge of the
carrying capacities of ropes made from fibre and steel; he needed to train
his eye to pick up any weakness in ties and in the timbers. Those
abilities came with experience. They were pointless unless the scaffolder
had the authority to reject material that did not come up to scratch. That
authority relied on personal integrity, support from men on the job,
backing by the union and from the occasional DLI official. Technologies
operate within relationships of power.
In 1953, the WWF set up its own Film Unit. The BWIU commissioned the Unit to make a film promoting safety, Bones of Building. Actor Leonard Teale narrated this 24-minute dramatised documentary. The story follows Bill Smith after his release from the army, his finding a job as a building worker, and his marriage to Margery. Bill ignores the advice of his union rep on a multi-storey site. When rotten scaffolding gives way, he falls and is permanently disabled.
final footage, BWIU Secretary Clancy declares that the unions wanted
future buildings “to be free of the ghosts of killed and injured
workers, built on foundations of rock, not on the bones and blood of the
men who made them.” These sentiments echoed the insights of Charlie
Sullivan in the 1920s when he wrote that history was made by “the great
and humble army whose sweat and blood are mingled in the concrete and
bricks as surely as if the walls were built over a framework of human
in March 1956, Bones of Building
toured building sites in the mobile projection van funded through the WWF.
The BWIU was delighted that
divided the blame for Bill’s injury between his failure to abide by
union rules, and the materials supplied by the contractor. The point was
that each worker had to do more than look after himself. They needed to
take collective responsibility by refusing to work when they considered
Control of scaffolding remained with the municipalities because the
Legislative Council blocked reform. Painters and plasterers worked off
temporary supports. The failings extended to the government-run
Hydro-Electricity Commission. In 1959, the Supreme Court upheld
compensation of ₤5,328 for a linesman. The Chief Justice ruled that,
in “failing to provide a close visual inspection”, the HEC had not
fulfilled its duty of care. Tasmania licensed its scaffolders in 1962.
Victoria: The 1963 Scaffolding Regulations Committee still left inspection in the hands of municipal building surveyors. The MBA was a retard on safety. The Masters just did not get it. They set up a Safety Centre, but resented action to improve conditions where it mattered, namely, on site. The head of their industrial relations committee alleged that “safety breaches were a means of creating job stoppages, sometimes deliberately created and reported by guess who? With claims for time lost.” If the employers had fixed up their sites, the ABLF would not have been able to hold those stoppages.
Victorian statistics for compensated deaths and injuries throughout the 1960s documented that employers gave unions more reasons than enough to stop jobs over safety. For all sectors of the economy, the death toll at work averaged 50 each year, 70 during travel and 300 more from disease, with 33,000 non-fatal injuries. In 1988, three out of every four of the matters raised at the consultation committee set up under the Victorian Building Industry Agreement (VBIA) concerned safety, and 90% of them were resolved in favour of the unions. For instance, the building unions had to stop jobs to make the employers install full planking over men working beneath riggers or steel fixers.
the Royal Commission had to admit that “the margins of safety for the
bridge were inadequate during erection; they would also have been
inadequate in the service condition had the bridge been completed.”
miners had been among the first workers to wear helmets, since they
provided a place to fit a lamp as well as protection against bumps and
falling rock. From 1955, the timber industry Award required that workers
in forests wear hard hats.
Many workers had encountered helmets during the two world wars. At first,
Opera House workers referred to safety helmets as “tin hats”, as they
had been called by the troops. The materials became lighter and stronger
after research for the military. By 1953, ICI marketed “safety hats”
made by impregnating fibre-glass with plastics and a light alloy, to weigh
less than 500 gms.
The ABLF later stipulated Duralumin, the brand name for an aluminum alloy
used in aircraft, with 4% copper and traces of other minerals. Alloys
reduced the danger of electrocution with tin.
National Safety Council promoted the wearing of what it called “hard
hats” as protective gear. An article in its November 1954 journal
reported that the US construction firm, Braun Transworld, had made them
compulsory for its workforce on the Williamstown to Altona pipeline. The
company had established a Turtle Club in the US for employees whose lives
had been saved by a hard hat. Three Australians were inducted into the
Club on 21 January 1955. 
pictorial record of the Snowy scheme tracked the spread of helmets. The
earliest photographs showed only felt hats, ethnic caps or berets. By
1954, a few tin hats had appeared, becoming common shortly after. Woolen
liners warded off the freeze. Safety helmets were universal during the
1959 inspection by Princess Alexandra.
buildings went higher, the more the labourers needed safety hats. Office
and apartment blocks rose beyond 45m in the late 1950s. Well into the
1960s, helmets remained compulsory only over certain heights, but were not
always worn even around the tallest towers. Just before Christmas 1957, a
scaffold-clip fell 50m. to pierce Bro. Holmes’s helmet, which saved him
from physical injury, though he needed a week off to recover from the
Nothing speeded up the acceptance of hard hats among workers more than
seeing one of their fellows saved from injury. On a later Altona job, a
length of 4” x 3” smashing a helmet, but its wearer’s injuries were
so slight that he lost only a few hours from work. His helmet was
exhibited on site.
Backing such experiences, the NSW Department of Labour and Industry
promised to enforce the wearing of helmets from mid-1957.
provision of helmets became part of wider disputes. For instance,
militants conducted a running battle over wages on the parking station in
the Sydney Domain in 1959. At one point, the supervisors had to go out to
buy rain hats but did not get back with them until 4.10 pm. In the
meantime, the company had wanted the men to wear their helmets against the
rain. The men pointed out that, unlike a Southwester, the helmet made the
water run down their backs. Commissioner Hood told them that they should
have turned up their collars.
Helmet manufacturers later fitted a gutter to deflect the water. (Brims
were pared back on helmets for riggers, engineers and lift-workers.)
had reasons for resisting helmets. Uncomfortable in humid weather, they
gave little protection from the sun or the rain. At the Opera House, the
carpenter-editor of the Benelong
Bugle welcomed helmets, seeing them as “probably the most important
single precautionary measure.” However, by Christmas 1962, he feared
that the helmet was “becoming the sacred cow of the safety cult. To
create health hazards in the name of safety is an absurdity. When the
wearing of safety helmets is compulsory, it becomes a scandal.”
He pointed out that a helmet did not shield the whole body. For instance,
a brass fitting had slid off the roof, striking a man’s helmet before
cutting into his back; he was off work for four days.
Labourers had to learn to fasten their helmets as well as to wear them. In one case, a helmet slipped off one head to crack onto an un-helmeted one. Nor did helmets bestow immortality. On a Monday in March 1961 at the Housing Commission flats at Surrey Hills, Bro. Leone survived being hit on the head by a brick, even though he had not been wearing a helmet. Four days later, on the same site, a falling brick killed Bro. Evans who was wearing his. The penny did not always drop with the brick. The foreman at a three-storey block of flats suffered brain damage from a falling brick. He later explained it had not been necessary for him to wear a helmet because he was the foreman. He felt he had just been unlucky.
Despite the endorsement of safety helmets by public authorities and some unions, the construction industry took nearly 20 years before wearing them became universal. The building unions had to pressure authorities, battle employers and educate their own members. The old-timers and young lairs among Whelan’s wreckers defied organisers over the wearing of helmets. Yet, building workers accepted helmets before the community adopted other safety regulations. For example, seat belts did not become compulsory until the early 1970s, and cyclists continue to protest against compulsory crash helmets. The acceptance of helmets around building sites varied from State to State.
a lid on it
From 1959, the NSW BTG leant on the Labor government to make the
Department of Labour enforce its regulations about the wearing of helmets.
Implementation waited on more inspectors and action around the jobs. Even
on major sites in the CBD, the take-up of helmets was slow and patchy
throughout the 1960s. Photographs in the trade journals reveal that Civil
& Civic felt no shame about showing men without helmets on the
Australia Square Tower as late as 1966. None of the workers in
illustrations accompanying a 1968 address to the National Ready Mixed
Concrete Association was wearing a helmet. (Those at the front-end of
spraying operations had neither goggles nor gloves.) Only one in four of
the men on the cover of the February 1969 issue of Building
Materials and Equipment had a hard hat.
The island’s MBA agreed to supply helmets on multi-storey sites
when hard-hats became compulsory from January 1960, but only around
structures over 6m. Tasmania’s joint union Journal
published quizzes to stimulate discussion about safety:
the Secretary of Labour told the MBA that its members had to pay for
helmets, a disagreement arose over who should buy the insert replaced for
each wearer. The MBA argued that if the workers paid for neither the
helmets nor their inserts, they would throw both away. Helmets cost
₤1 15s, and the inserts 7s 6d. The MBA resisted supplying the
helmets until the unions agreed that the men buy their own inserts. Again,
the workers won.
the same pattern of adoption occurred in the other States. The 1960 Award
in West Australia made no mention of helmets. Late in 1962, the Victorian
MBA accepted that helmets had become a necessity, and bought 3,000 at a
discount. By 1972, the Branch made wearing a helmet a condition of
employment: “No Helmet. No Start”.
became show points of struggle. Workers stuck on union insignia and
campaign slogans. The custom recalled the fights by earlier generations
for the right to wear union badges on the lapels of their coats. From
2006, the Australian Building and Construction Commission deemed those
stickers illegal because they intimidated non-unionists. Labourers defied
that tin-pot dictatorship. The employers claimed that the adhesive glue in
the stickers weakened the Duralium and thus endangered the wearer. This
concern was a first for employers’ taking preemptive action to protect
US factories used red to identify workers with hearing defects so that
everyone knew to take care when passing on information. Another idea was
to add phosphorescence so that the helmet glowed in the dark. More
relevant to Australian summers was that white reflected the sun’s rays
to reduce scalp temperatures by almost 6° C.
around 1960, helmets in Tasmania were coded with thirteen colours.
Labourers wore grey; yellow was for carpenters and blue for plumbers;
bricklayers had red and painters pink; riggers got brown; plasterers wore
black; electricians sported orange; engineers had green while lift-workers
were navy blue. A foreman had the colour of his trade but with a white
band. Executives had white.
different colour code operated around the Opera House. On the observation
platform, visitors heard a taped message:
those days, “the approaching yellow hat was a sign to get busy.”
Helmet colours at the Opera House had changed by late 1963 where all the
helmets were orange but with a different band of colour for each trade:
“Green for carpenters, white for labourers, blue for riggers, red for
fitters and lemon for general foremen and office staff.” Foremen and
leading hands were
foremen said that their black ban was to ‘mourn the dearth of good
tradesman observed that “the grey hats remain unalterably the same” on
the toffs and politicians.
After hats went out of fashion, those higher-ups were known as “the
these codes encounter any of the problems shown in Quentin Tarantino’s
1991 movie, Reservoir Dogs, in
which each gangster was to be known only by a colour? The crims all wanted
to be Mr Black. No one wanted to be Mr Pink. Before then, hard hats had
become a fashion item, picked up by “The Village People”.
of the Queensland Master Builders in 1970 also ackowledged that
carelessness by workers was not the prime cause of injuries:
went on to accuse government inspectors of being “most lenient regarding
breaches”. The editor said nothing about corruption. Instead, he
Faced with employers this ilk, union campaigns for safety could do little more than hold down the rate of injuries.
boss takes stock
this time, NSW Industrial Commissioner Burns had made the same point:
years later, buildings were still being designed to cut construction
costs, making them unsafe to erect, and leaving them hazardous to
methods with novel materials and machinery challenged anyone striving to
reduce the rate of injury on office blocks and at remote mines. Those
projects unsettled responsibilities all the way down the line. Holland
called for foremen to be trained and licensed for the range of tasks that
their workforces had to perform. Many labouring tasks had become “really
skilled operations”, yet, “construction carpenters, dog-men,
scaffolders, plant operators, crane operators” had gained their skills
by working alongside more experienced fellows. The nomadic nature of the
builders’ labourers contributed to the incidence of injury. Blokes
breezed onto a site for cash only to injure themselves in the first week
because no one had told them how to “stack material, even how to wield a
shovel.” Management’s failure to communicate with the high proportion
of people from non-English-speaking backgrounds added to the harms.
speech retains significance because it documented that top management knew
the faults in their organisations. The evidence that Holland presented
left the employers with no defence. They could not pretend that their
critics were being wise after the event. The struggles to win safety also
proved how few employers tried to put Holland’s precepts into practice.
More rushed to blame workers than to fix the sites.
gap between speech-making and action applied to Holland’s own projects.
In 1983, the company had twice agreed with the ACT Trades and Labour
Council on procedures for handling asbestos sheeting. Persistent breaches
of those undertakings led to a two-and-a-half week strike at the Bruce
Indoor Sports Stadium. The company had put up a large sign: “DANGER
Asbestos cutting area * No dry cutting permitted * Wash down slab after
use.” Yet, Hollands provided no protective gear.
In 1986, a foreman on Hollands in Burwood, Sydney, instructed an
apprentice to work on a partly dismantled scaffold in an area over which
the safety committee had placed a total ban. The lad fell onto broken
glass and debris.
firm with a regard for its reputation, Civil & Civic, employed a
safety officer, from mid-1968, to travel the country making sure that
conditions were safe. Yet, in March 1970, an accident on one of its
Brisbane jobs caused the men to go out for three days to win the
employment of a licensed scaffolder. The Departmental inspector there was
one of the pro-boss types condemned in the Queensland MBA Journal.
misbehaviour did not decline once the company got established. Even
Commissioner Cole took Transfield to task in 2004 for its safety
violations in Melbourne’s CityLink tunnel.
At the same time, the firm was buying fake certificates to bring scabs
onto the Sydney tunnel.
co-founder, Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, subsidised the visual arts out of the
profits he extracted from his employees. He later confessed to corruption
and strong-arm tactics: “We cover this with a veneer of civilisation.”
Belgiorno-Nettis differed from his fellow capitalists in acknowledging
that, in a class society, each art of civilisation involves acts of
barbarism against workers whose creative capacities pay for the patron’s
foreman’s assumption that the brickies should go on working until he had
the “chance” to fix the scaffolding typified the way that the pursuit
of profit defined “accident”.
attitude also explained why 40% of building workers reported a significant
injury each year. The NSW government’s Senior Engineer on Construction
Safety, John Hempsall, told the 1983 Building Science seminar that “compliance
would have dramatically reduced”
the incidence (emphasis in original):
gave chapter and verse of how sloppy, stupid or shonky supervisors
contributed to harm around building sites, repeating much of what Holland
had said twelve years earlier.
presented eight case studies of the failure of supervisors to follow
regulations, let alone common sense. Two labourers suffered serious
injuries because the “site foreman had neglected to inform the riggers
of the dangerous positioning of the bolts in the concrete pads and the
danger of standing the columns on these pads.” A bricklayer’s labourer
received a fatal electrical shock when preparing mortar in a defective
cement mixer; the obligation to maintain that equipment lay with the
foreman. In another case of faulty gear, the foreman admitted that “he
knew the guard was not attached as it had been broken in transit to the
site and he had not had time to secure a replacement.” His defence was
that the man who lost three fingers “should have been more careful.”
following April, the situation was no better at the Aspley reservoir where
no one told the union office of a serious injury till the next day:
“During the course of organiser Dobinson’s investigations, the members
on the job would not co-operate and sat dumb when approached for
information.” The Crest Hotel was a mess. Throughout July, organiser
McCarthy had to go back over and again to stop men endangering themselves.
Other jobs were worse and the members’ attitude no better.
failure of some workers to look out for each other recurs throughout the
union’s history. Officials always had to battle against the difficulties
from a nomadic membership. The Queensland situation also suggested a
weakness in the Branch’s method of work. Organisation had not been
education. Education required the men to become active in their own
interest. The leadership’s determination to keep control of the Branch
encouraged passivity around the jobs.
on the Opera House were superior to most sites, yet a carpenter listed
seven faults common to irresponsible workers:
with these concerns called for sharing the responsibility between the
contractors and the workers. For example, to deal with the third item, the
union later required employers to supply protective boots, and to stop its
own members from wearing thongs.
West Australian newsletter in 1974 reminded BLs to look to their own
union could never let up in its effort to educate labourers to protect
themselves and each other.
SGIO dispute happened just in time for Branch officials to raise at the
Rockhampton Safety Convention on 29-30 July 1968. One organiser afterwards
accused the employers of attending for “the sole reason of pulling the
union policy to pieces.” The union delegates got no chance to ask hard
questions because all queries had to be submitted in writing and the
embarrassing ones were never read out. Secretary Delaney complained that
“many pious resolutions had been carried at conventions but were
forgotten immediately after.”
at the SGIO job confirmed Delaney’s assessment. Although the client had
charge of the State’s system of workers’ compensation, the safety for
its new building was a disgrace. SGIO labourers became even more
union-minded after the transfer of their delegate. A few days later, the
death of Bro. Harmer led to a further walk-off before all the city’s
building workers marched on Parliament House. They went out again on 27
November 1968 to press for safety committees. Most employers either were
against their establishment, or insisted on nominating the membership.
Early in 1969, the men at SGIO elected their own safety officers.
death at the SGIO site in June provoked a third and protracted stoppage.
The contractor and the MBA still opposed allowing workers any say in the
choice of a safety officer. The men stayed out. The union wanted the firm
to be charged with manslaughter. By 30 June, collections on other jobs had
brought in $2,000 for the strikers; on Saturdays, the Branch distributed
food parcels valued at $15 each. The Commissioner agreed that men should
have some say in the selection of their safety officer, and the firm
conceded that the job needed cleaning up. Then, a dispute erupted over the
sacking of a BL delegate. Job action got him reinstated. When bricks began
popping out of walls in February 1970, the BLs refused to work on the SGIO
plaza. Concern over safety became a catalyst for rank-and-file control
around the sites.
payment of height money muddied the education of labourers in the battle
for safety. The employers argued that they were paying extra for labourers
to take risks. In turn, men who got that bonus were less likely to insist
on protections. The unions saw multi-storey allowances as a way to improve
the weekly wage. When the height allowance was at a flat-rate, it brought
the earnings of labourers closer to those of tradesmen. Safety could seem
NSW regulations insisted on the laying of planks across the purlins and
the positioning of walking planks on top of those. Warning notices had to
be in place: “DANGER KEEP OFF THIS ROOF”.
roofing was equally hazardous. A 44-year old painter died after smashing
his head from a 5.5m. fall through a plastic skylight. Another painter had
fallen through a skylight on that site. Nonetheless, neither the
contractor nor the building’s owner had installed a safety mesh. The
coroner found death by “misadventure”.
In other words, the employer’s negligence had not been intended to kill
anyone, just to save money. There are degrees of murder, though not of
on the Saturday, out on the Pacific Highway, a worker for Leader Form-Work
broke both arms and legs after falling 9m. at a spot without handrails. On
the following Monday, the ABLF organiser pulled all workers off that floor
until the handrails were erected.
Also on the Saturday, a 25-year old plumber was killed on the Concrete
Construction job at Centrepoint. When his fellow workers returned on the
Monday, they voted to walk off for the day as a mark of respect.
that Monday, carpenters and labourers stopped work following injuries to
two men on slip-form at another Concrete Construction job. Their workmates
agreed that they had to take charge of safety for it to be effective. Next
morning, they concluded that conditions were still not up to the mark, and
so they resumed on safety only. They also decided that while working on
safety was there should be no demarcation, which only the BWIU opposed.
The meeting elected six safety officers with authority to declare areas
black. After smoko, they conducted an inspection and reported back to a
meeting at 10 am. A conference with the Company and the MBA agreed that
the safety committee continue to have a say in the conduct of the job.
Work resumed after lunch.
an injured labourer to medical help is rarely straightforward. Even the
partial collapse of a multi-storey building impeded rescue. The Federal Journal pictured this scenario:
1981, the West Australian Branch insisted that all jobs using fixed-tower
cranes include an evacuation cage with first-aid supplies and a stretcher
to move the victim from the incident to the ambulance.
soon learnt the dangers from half-baked Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).
For example, five men inside a silo had waist-belts connected to
lifelines. When their platform gave way, one labourer slipped through his
belt to suffocate in the grain. He should have been issued with a
parachute harness, not just a waist-belt. Even if the waist-belt had held
him up, it would have concentrated the impact of arresting his fall onto
his stomach, risking ruptures.
Nor was a parachute harnesses enough to prevent injury. That restraint had
to halt its wearer before he hit the ground. Inertia reel-blocks were safe
only for short drops, yet they had long leads. In every case, the
apparatus needed to be fixed to anchor points which could bear the impact
from the weight of a falling body. A PPE is the last resort, not the first
option. Best practice is to prevent falls by designing that danger out of
the construction process, for instance, to build roofs on the ground
before lifting them into place.
instances illustrate some of the forms through which control by workers
limited harms by containing managerial prerogatives. Less obvious is how
the relations that labourers build up among themselves on sites affect
their safety. For instance, when Alwyn (Alan) Harris was killed jumping
[extending] a crane on a Sunday in April 1983, the Victorian Executive
contended that “rigging work should always be carried out by a team of
men who know each other and their methods of work.” Because of the
recession, scratch-teams of “weekend” riggers were chasing Sunday
jobs, thereby compounding the dangers.
full-time safety officer operated with two assistants, a carpenter and a
rigger. They wore “S” on the sides of their helmets so that newcomers
recognised them straight-off, while all workers could speak to any one of
them at any time. Workers registered complaints and suggestions in books
kept in the meal rooms, the first-aid room and at other offices; the. The
Safety Committee conducted two inspections a week with the authority to
stop work in hazardous conditions.
Workers took responsibility for preventing unsafe actions. The contractors
gave priority to rectifying problems, and screened films on-site during
working hours. Helmets became obligatory. Injuries still happened because
of careless actions: “a ladder insecurely fixed or a board with nails
left on the ground, throwing timber from a scaffold or using a grinder
main, consultation on site was largely unknown. Foremen appointed safety
committees on some jobs in the 1950s. The Victorian Building Industry
Agreement of 1956 was the closest to a formal arrangement, though its
discussions were conducted among officials, not around the sites.
From the start of the Opera House project in the late 1950s, lead
contractors encouraged employees to become involved with health and
key to safety was action on the job backed by the union. Bosses sacked
delegates who insisted on safety inspections and standards. Rank-and-file
action got most reinstated. Those conflicts often sparked wider campaigns.
For instance, sixteen Sydney BLs on a wharf demolition at Circular Quay in
1958 not only had their safety conditions improved, they also won an extra
37s a week and 15 minutes shower-time.
workers exerted direct control through disagreements over whether it was
raining hard enough to stop work and to receive “wet money”. Although
the Awards gave the final say to the employer, labourers still had agree
to go out in the rain. From the late 1950s, they realised that breaking a
concrete pour strengthened their bargaining hand.
Refusing to work in the wet then delivered a knock-out blow, and laid the
seed-bed for worker control. Another source was the refusal to work under
ABLF regained its militancy throughout the 1960s, its activists
institutionalised these initiatives. The crunch came during struggles to
establish safety committees, and to determine their membership and powers.
BLs insisted on electing health and safety delegates with the authority to
stop work when conditions were not up to standard. During 1965, Costains
in Queensland agreed that a safety officer be elected from the job to
check on safety. Nonetheless, the men at Swanbank stopped over the lack of
safety and first-aid officers. During a compulsory conference, the
contractor promised that “a full-time man would be put on but that they
[the BLF] would have to have a conference with the employers to decide who
would subsidise the man.”
February 1969, the NSW BTG refused to work anywhere they considered
unsafe. This resolution initiated the “Clean Up the Building Industry”
campaign, with the NSW BLF banning free-fall hoists after November.
The MBA advised its members to go along with this policy, though they
protested at the loss of managerial prerogative.
After 176 mishaps on the Citra job on the Warringah Mall, the death of a
worker provoked a four-week strike by 209 workers. When they went back,
they elected two full-time safety officers, one by the tradesmen and the
other from the BLs. In Canberra, on 17 April 1972, BLs on the Citra job in
Kingston stopped work at lunchtime over amenities and hazards. The company
agreed that the only work be on fixing both. The BLs were paid an extra $4
a day until their delegates agreed that safety was up to scratch.
NSW Branch pushed a policy of workers on the job having the final say on
whether it was safe to proceed. For example, on May Day 1972, a meeting of
all grades and trades – again except carpenters - at the Sydney Law
Courts elected a safety committee of two BLs, a Boilermaker and an
electrician with the right to stop work on unsafe areas. The four were to
meet management for an hour each week to monitor the site. Three weeks
later, on 22 May, worker control there faced a new test. An engineer
declared a crane safe. The riggers insisted on additional beams, refusing
to start until they were installed. On 25 May, a 9 am meeting of BLs
endorsed the riggers’ decision. In rejecting their assessment, the
company proposed that the crane be lifted with two Porta-Powers. If that
method did not succeed, they promised to put in the two extra beams. The
workers said “No”. The company suggested that the union employ an
engineer to give a second opinion, but declined to pay for the advice. The
issues of health and safety or amenities moved past half-day disputes on
this or that site. A pattern emerged. BLs civilised their environment at
work by taking charge of hour-by-hour operations. Moreover, they upended
their relationship with management by influencing investments. That policy
followed BTG calls since the 1930s to put more resources into public
housing, schools and hospitals rather than into office blocks. From 1969,
the Victorians asserted their right to have a say about which buildings
they worked on.
1973, worker control was challenging the rule of capital at every level in
the building industry. Action on sites had grown towards dual power with
elected site committees telling the managers who to employ, what to do,
In defending the built and natural environments, the ABLF limited the
opportunities for profit-taking. The policy of No-Ticket No-Start laid a
foundation for an attempt by the NSW Branch to achieve permanency through
The MBA built its case against the Federation on the disruptions around
worker control over amenities and safety. These challenges to Messrs
Construction Capital combined to convince the Federal Court in June 1974
to de-register the union.
apathy of Lord Robens
UK, the Robens Committee concluded in 1972 that the multiplying of
regulations had made matters worse. Their wording was often unintelligible
to those who had to put them into practice. The result was fatalism, the
conviction that “accidents just happened”. Robens put the blame for
injuries on to “apathy” among the workers.
He did not see that that any indifference resulted from the capitalists’
disciplining of labour by depriving workers of direction over the
application of their capacities, thereby alienating them from the purpose
of their actions. Robens recommended passing responsibility to people on
the site through consultation that gave workers responsibility but not
A 1981 Government Inquiry in NSW admitted that bosses induced apathy by
keeping workers voiceless.
An Australian authority of OHS laws, Adrian Brooks, reacted against Robens
by any arguing that apathy towards OHS might have been “a justifiably
calculated inattention to meaningless requirements and sanctions.”
concentrating on materials and equipment, the Robens Report increased apathy. His reform package did not confront the
adversarial relations between capital and labour. Instead, he assumed a
community of interest when the prevalence of harms was proving the
opposite. The 1981 NSW Inquiry acknowledged that industrial conflict was
the norm but hoped that the class struggle might make an exception for OHS.
The author did not see that implementation of a safe workplace challenged
capital’s need for speed-ups to lift productivity - that codeword for
the Robens Committee had been sitting, a transformation of global capital
knocked the foundation from under its approach. The Report had supposed that consultations would take place within a
regulated labour market in a buoyant economy with an effective union
movement. Instead, the implementation of his calls for joint
responsibility collided with the era of de-regulation. Confronted by a
spike in competition, employers cut costs by reducing their expenditure on
OHS and compensation.
1972 and 1983, four Australian States followed Robens down the
yellow-brick road. In 1985, the Commonwealth established a National
Occupational Health and Safety Commission on Robens principles.
Ten years later, yet another inquiry found that each improvement had taken
up to five years to implement. Even then, its adoption was never uniform.
After Queensland replaced its convoluted regulations with Robens-style
self-regulation in 1989, employers admitted that they did not know what
was expected of them.
a new Act in 1989, nor an ALP administration, could keep the State’s
biggest building firms within the law. The Queenslanders gave their
“Rogue of the Year” award for 1991 to Baulderstone Hornibrook on the
Mater Hospital. Photographs exposed the absence of planks, handrails and
A 1994 survey of 500 Queensland building workers covered by Awards
recorded multiple harms. Half had met with an injury in the previous year,
with one in eight losing time. Almost half had suffered a serious injury
during their working lives; chronic back pain afflicted 40%, and one in
five had a hearing loss.
start of the 21st century, another spurt in construction meant a shortage
of scaffolding. CFMEU Assistant National Secretary Lindsay Fraser listed
complaints about imported components:
fewer contractors now resorted to packing cases, shoddy steel was no less
deadly. The boom also brought on a new bout of ruthlessness to meet
schedules. As ever, contractors were in too much of a hurry. The rate of
fatalities among builders’ labourers remained four times higher than in
the rest of the economy. Falls remained the most frequent cause of on-site
the record shows that a high level of injuries in the construction sector
is to be “expected”, that probability does not account for each and
every harm. Statistics for fatalities illustrate an element of interplay
between chance and necessity. For instance, no BL was killed on-site in
New South Wales during April 1973, but two died on the same day in April
1974. The variation within 13
months cannot be attributed to changes in legislation or to new
technologies, still less to an overthrow of the labour process. Two deaths
within eight hours had been as likely in 1973 as in 1974.
chance affects the moment when injuries occur, their persistence is not
bad luck. Although there is no way of predicting that a worker will fall
to his death at a given time or place, the situation facing the entire
workforce is not one of chaos. Rather, the sum of injuries testifies to
the adversarial processes through which capitals thrive.
Industrial injuries and
illnesses are accidents waiting to happen. Chance strikes within the
domain of necessity. The timing, manner and place of each injury are
contingent. The patterns of their prevalence are determined within the
necessities upon capital to expand through speed-ups. Between the
particular and the pattern falls the greater likelihood of injuries with
every intensification of labour-time.
definition of “accident” quoted above included “not designed” as
one criterion for “accident”. Once again, this approach deflects
attention away from the difference between the random and the regime. A
contractor does not design a procedure in order to produce an injury.
Rather, projects are designed to maximise their profitability. That driver
cannot be separated from the level of harms. Moreover, one source of
injuries is the reluctance to accept the expense of designing for their
The number of injuries can be contained by a framework of clear and tight laws, the enforcement of regulations and on-site activism backed by militant union officials. Changes since Joel’s death have weakened all three by increasing the power of employers to prevent workers from defending each other. Following recommendations from the 2002-3 Royal Commission into the industry, the Australian Building and Construction Commission has supplied Messrs Construction Capital with a reserve force of foremen.
 Glenn Mitchell, On Strong Foundations, The BWIU and Industrial Relations in the Australian Construction Industry, 1942-1992, Harcourt Brace, Sydney, 1996, pp. 95-96; Builders’ Laborer, September 1959, p. 15.
 Builders’ Laborers’ Journal (BLJ), April 1957, p. 1.
 BLJ, April 1957, p. 3.
Jack Mundey, Green bans and
beyond, Angus & Robertson,
 BLJ, April 1957, p. 3; May 1957, p. 1.
 Builders’ Laborer (SA), June 1957, pp. 9-10; BLJ, October 1957, p. 2.
 BLJ, July 1957, p. 1.
BLJ, January-February 1958,
p. 3; Paul True, “It must be
true … it’s in the papers!”, Building Workers and the Press, 160
Years of Anti-Union Propaganda, CFMEU (NSW Branch),
 BLJ, April 1957, p. 3.
 Industrial Commission of NSW, No. 66 of 1961, Appeal Book, p. 1, Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (ABLF), New South Wales Branch Records, Mitchell Library (ML) MSS 4879, MLK 04269; for a similar battle to enforce DLI instructions, NSW Builders’ Labourer, March 1970, p. 7.
 Unity, May 1957, p. 4.
 Builders’ Laborer, March 1959, p. 15, and May 1959, p. 6, and August 1959 issue.
ABLF Federal Council, Minutes,
 101 Commonwealth Arbitration Reports (CAR) (1962) 318 at 323.
Lindie Clark, Finding a Common
Interest, The Story of Dick Dusseldorp and Lend Lease,
Tom and Audrey McDonald, Intimate
 BLJ, January-February 1958, p. 2, and March 1958, p. 4.
NSW MBA to Industrial Registrar,
John Matthews, Occupational
Health and Safety at Work, Pluto,
Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission (CC&AC), Transcript
of Proceedings, No. 2067 of 1970,
 CC&AC, Transcript, p. 56; leaflets in MLK 04263.
Queensland Master Builder (QMB),
Guide for scaffolders, NSW
Department of Labour and Industry,
Jack Mundey to Jim Delaney,
 Guide for scaffolders, p. 19.
Guide for scaffolders, p.
34; Scaffolding: course notes,
Department of Industrial Affairs,
 C. W. Sullivan, Papers, ML, MSS A2886, p. 57.
Lisa Milner, Fighting films: a history of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film
 Western Australian Industrial Gazette, December 1960, p. 670.
 Journal of the Building, Transport and Timber workers’ trades (JBTTT) February 1958, p. 8, October 1959, p. 9.
W. R. H. Keast, Building
 Victorian Year Book, 1973, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, p. 1079.
 Weekend Australian, 28-30 January 1989, p. 42.
Builders’ Labourers’ Song
Robyn Annear, City Lost and found, Black Inc.,
 Safety News, November-December 1954, p. 4.
 Care, October 1954, p. 16; Safety News, May-June 1953, p. 8.
 Safety News, Nov.-Dec. 1954, pp. 4-5; Jan.-Feb. 1955, p. 7; May-June 1957, p. 5.
Siobhan McHugh, The Snowy: the people behind the power, A&R, Sydney, 1995, pp.
66, 125 and 134; Elizabeth J. Mattner, Construction
Camp Capers: Living in camps on the Snowy scheme, privately
printed, Cooma, 1999, p. 21; BLJ,
July 1957, p. 4.
 BLJ, January-February 1958, p. 4.
 Unity, December 1966, p. 12.
 BLJ, September 1957, p. 4.
NSW Industrial Commission, Transcript,
No. 38 of 1959,
 Benelong Bugle (BB), December 1962, p. 3.
 BB, December 1966, p. 8.
 Builder’s Laborer, August 1959, p. 11.
 NSW Industrial Commission, Transcript, No. 66 of 1961, MLK 04269.
 Builder NSW, June 1983, p. 316.
 Annear, A City Lost and Found, p. 203.
 JBTTT, September 1960, p. 49.
 JBTTT, December 1959, p. 7.
 Safety News, Nov.-Dec. 1954, p. 5.
 Safety News, Nov.-Dec. 1954, p. 6.
 BB, September 1963, p. 3, May 1964, p. 3, and June 1964, p. 1.
 Building Materials and Equipment, March 1968, p. 30.
Queensland Master Builder,
National Conference on
Industrial Safety – 1971, Proceedings, Department of Labour,
Quoted H. Cook to L. Boyce,
 Australian Safety News, February 1999, p. 46; C. Campion, “The impact of design on contractor health and safety”, Journal of Occupational Health & Safety Australia and New Zealand, 16 (6), December 2000, pp. 501-6.
 National Conference, 1971, p. 59.
 National Conference, 1971, p. 60.
 Builders Labourers’ Federal Journal (BLFJ), November 1980, pp. 14-15.
 BLFJ, May 1983, p. 23.
 Building Worker, November 1986, p. 3.
 Gianfranco Cresciani, Transfield The First Fifty Years, ABC Books, Sydney, 2006, pp. 114, 161-2, and 170.
 Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry, Final Report, 2003, Volume 15, pp. 30-36.
 Report on investigation in to safety certification and training in the NSW construction industry, ICAC, Sydney, 2004, p. 38.
Quoted Cresciani, Transfield,
p. 170; Walter Benjamin, Illuminations,
Quoted Stephen J. Frenkel and Alice Coolican, Unions Against Capitalism? A sociological comparison of the Australian
building and metal workers’ unions, George Allen & Unwin,
 Builder (NSW), June 1983, pp. 316-8.
 National Conference, 1971, p. 59.
Greg Foley, “Construction industry occupational health safety
 NSW Royal Commission into Productivity in the Building Industry, NSW, Parliamentary Papers, 1992-93, volume XX, Paper 267, pp. 332-431, and volume XXII, Paper 276, Appendices 8.1.6 (Sub-Contractors) and 8.1.7 (Insolvency); Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry (RC), Final Report, AGPS, Canberra, 2003, volume 6, p. 41; RC, Workplace Health and Safety in the Building and Construction Industry, Canberra, 2002, Discussion Paper 7, p. 27; P. Wadick, “Safety culture among subcontractors in the NSW domestic housing industry”, JOHS ANZ, 23 (2), April 2007, pp. 143-52.
 BB, August 1964, p. 4.
BL News (WA),
 Queensland Master Builder, April 1970, p. 12; for a legal perspective on “skylarking” see C. P. Mills, Workers compensation (New South Wales), Butterworths, Sydney, 1969, pp. 161-2.
Safety News, March-April
1955, p. 15; Guide for
scaffolders, Department of Labour and Industry,
Noni Holmes and Fergus Robinson, OPDU fall protection handbook, OPDU,
NSW organisers’ diary,
NSW organisers’ diary,
 NSW organisers’ diary, 17 & 18 April 1972, MLK 04274.
 NSW organisers’ diary, 17 & 18 April 1972, MLK 04274.
 NSW organisers’ diary, 18 & 20 April 1972, MLK 04274
 Builders Labourers’ Federal Journal, November 1981, p. 16.
 Australian Safety News, February 1999, p. 50.
Holmes and Robinson, OPDU fall protection handbook, p. 35.
 ASN, February 1999. p. 48; NSCA’s National Safety, April 2000. pp. 31-37, and November 2000, p. 54.
Victorian Executive, 20 April and
 Benelong Bugle (BB), June 1965, p. 10, and July 1966, p. 6
 BB, July 1964, p. 9.
 BB, August 1964, p. 4.
 OBU Herald, February 1919, p. 1.
 Frank T. de Vyver, “The Melbourne Building Industry Agreement”, Journal of Industrial Relations (JIR), 1 (1), April 1959, pp. 7-19, and “The Melbourne Building Industry Agreement: A Re-Examination”, JIR, 12 (2), June 1970, pp. 166-81.
BB, April 1964, p. 2; Journal
and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, v. 106,
Parts II & III, November 1973, p. 11; Sarah Gregson, “Who built
the Opera House?”, Anne Watson (ed.), Building
a Masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney,
2006, pp. 122-35.
 BLJ, March 1958, p. 4.
 BLJ, September 1957, p. 3; McDonald, Intimate Union, pp. 87-88; NSW Industrial Commission, Transcript, 5 March 1959, p. 2, MLK 04269; Queensland Minutes, 23 July 1968.
 For example, Unity, December 1966, p. 9.
Jack Mundey to NSW Labor Council,
MBA to Mundey,
 NSW organisers’ diary, 17, 24, 25 and 27 April 1972, MLK 04274.
NSW organisers’ diary, 1, 23, 25 and 31 May,
Pete Thomas, Taming the concrete jungle, the builders laborers’ story, NSW
Branch of the ABCE&BLF, Sydney, 1973, pp. 31-49; John Wallace and
Joe Owens, Workers call the tune
at the Opera House, National Workers’ Control Centre, Sydney,
 Commonwealth Conciliation & Arbitration Commission, Transcript, No. 983 of 1973, 29 May 1973, pp. 6 and 11, MLK 04273.
NSW organisers’ diary, 1972, MLK 04274; SMH,
3 October 1972, p. 11a-c, and 23 and 25 May 1973, p. 1 and “Editorial”; Employers’
Review, July 1973, p. 127, November 1973, pp. 217-21, and November
1974, p. 160; Builder NSW, July 1973, pp. 290-94, November 1973, p. 488; Australian,
17 September 1974; Australian Archives, A10146 (2004/00725431)
1973/68; 23 Federal Law Reports (1974) 356.
Safety and health at work,
1970-72, H. M. Stationery Office, London, 1972, Two Volumes,
chastised by Adrian Brooks, Guidebook
to Australian occupational health & safety laws, CCH
Australia, Sydney, 1987 ed., pp. 232-6; “Editorial”, British
Theo Nichols, Sociology of industrial injury, Mansell,
 Report of the NSW Government Commission of Inquiry into Occupational Health and Safety, Sydney, NSW Parliamentary Papers, Fourth Session, 1981, volume 1, p. 121
Brooks, Guidebook, p. 245.
 NSW, Parliamentary Papers, 1981, p. 122.
 David Peetz, “Hollow Shells: the Link Between Individual Contracting and Productivity Growth”, Journal of Australian Political Economy, 56, December 2005, pp. 32-55.
Claire Mayhew, “Self-employed builders in
 R. Johnstone, “Improving worker safety: reflections on the legal regulation of OHS in the 20th century”, JOH&S ANZ, 15 (6), December 1999, pp. 521-26.
M. Quinlan, “Ocupational health and safety legislation in
 Builders’ Labourer, December 1992, p. 30.
 Mayhew, “Self-employed builders etc”, JOHS ANZ, June 1997, p. 232.
 Hard Hat, March 2004, p. 15.
R. Trethewy, M. Atkinson and B. Falls, “Improved hazard
identification for contractors”, JOHS, ANZ, 16 (6),
December 2000, p. 512.
Builders’ Labourers’ News,
 quoted J. W. Blair, et al., The Workers’ Compensation Act of 1905: with an explanation of its provisions and cases decided on, Law Book Company of Australasia, Brisbane, 1906, p. xxxii.
Claire James, “Occupational Injury: Accidental or a Reflection of
Conflict Between Capital and Labour”, Australian
 See note 65 above. The pertinence of design failure in the production of accidents is taken up in the final chapter which interrogates the legal doctrine of “intent” as a necessary condition for crime.