BLF - FRAMEWORK OF FLESH: BUILDERS' LABOURERS BATTLE FOR HEALTH AND SAFETY - Review - Michael Quinlan


Humphrey McQueen
Framework of Flesh: Builders' Labourers Battle for Health & Safety
Ginninderra Press
Adelaide,2009. pp.337.
$30.00 paper.

This is very different book to another book on asbestos I recently reviewed for the journal (Defending the Indefensible by McCulloch and Tweedale). The latter was a carefully crafted scientific critique of the asbestos industry while McQueen's book focuses on health and safety through the prism of builders' labourers and their union. This is not to say that McQueen's book makes no use of the relevant scientific research. Indeed, he has gone to some lengths in this regard. Further, both books are written with passion informed by the terrible injustices wrought on working people and their families. However, McQueen's book gives far more attention to worker 'voice' and it also describes the evolution of work processes, hazards and attempts to deal with these in some detail. The book concentrates on the period since 1870 in Australia - although there is material relating to earlier periods - and also examines a number of occupations such as dogman in particular detail. McQueen has made an effort to avoid a New South Wales / Victoria version of Australian history, although material drawn from these two colonies / states does tend to dominate.

McQueen's book is written more in the genre of socially informed labour history and forms part of a broader project on the history of builders' labourers. It is the first book of a trilogy with the following books dealing with the building of the union and composition and behaviour of the rank and file and their officials respectively. I was impressed by the fact that in this trilogy substantive working conditions, notably health and safety, come front and centre rather than being an afterthought or a minor appendage - as is so often the case with otherwise excellent books on labour history. Clearly McQueen recognised that in order to understand the history of builders' labourers you need to appreciate the working conditions they experienced and especially their ever present perils on the job. He goes to some lengths to explain the tools used at different times, work practices and systems (including the height and materials used in buildings) and the relationships of this to safety.  McQueen deals with an array of hazards from falls through to exhaustion, exposure to hazardous materials like silica and asbestos, skin cancer and dermatitis, body-stressing and the absence (until comparatively recently) of even basic amenities. McQueen notes the role of the union in campaigning for improvements in conditions and OHS legislation as well as efforts to protect its members after injury (both through mutual insurance and later through workers' compensation and 'accident pay'). The views expressed by leading employer and industry bodies in relation to safety are also reproduced, including 'victim-blaming' especially of subcontractors.

As might be expected on the basis of McQueen's previous work, the book is well written and will engage an audience even those not especially interested in workplace health and safety. McQueen has also done us a service by highlighting that the Builders Labour Federation was important not only for the precedent it established with regard to the protection of natural and built heritage in the 1970s a big and lasting footprint for a relatively small labourers' union - but in the struggle for a safer workplace during the same period. The book covers a lot of ground in a relatively limited space. There was room for a more lengthy work here with expanded sections on things the present book spends only a few pages on but it is clear that was not McQueen's purpose. He was looking for a wider audience (without 'dumbing' the book down) and this is entirely valid. Equally, the need for more extensive examinations of the history of OHS in particular industries should not be eschewed.

Although the book makes extensive use of a wide range of sources I suspect more use could have been made of arbitration transcripts (state and federal), royal commissions/government inquiries into OHS, court proceedings (including prosecutions under OHS legislation), parliamentary debates on legislative changes. For example, the Legislative Council of NSW inquiry into deaths of young workers chaired by Fred Nile contains a wealth of valuable material on hazards in the construction industry (including details of tragic incidents like the death of Joel Exner - killed on his third day on the job). These materials not only contain insights into safety but also the views of workers and their families (like Joel Exner's family). McQueen doesn't ignore the Exner case but in describing this draws the information largely from media sources. This is fine but I think the material in the Nile review adds context. It also points to community / family mobilisations over workplace death that are assuming an important role in pressuring governments for reforms to both OHS and workers' compensation laws in Australia and other countries like the UK and Canada. Having said this, McQueen gives some attention to the Cole Commission of Inquiry into the building and construction industry established under the Howard government and infamous star chamber Australian Building Construction Commission that resulted from this. The Cole commission devoted a single volume (of 16) to OHS and largely ignored union claims about serious illegality by employers in relation to OHS.

In my view, perhaps the key strength of this book is its focus on providing a labour history of workers' health and safety in a particular industry/set of occupations covering a sustained period of time. To my knowledge while there are some excellent treatments of the history of occupational health and safety (OHS) sympathetic to labour the approach adopted by McQueen is rare. I would hope we will see more books of this type in the future. There is a rich vein of source materials in relation to workers' health across a range of industries in Australia (and elsewhere) yet to be tapped. One can only hope this book will help to inspire others.

University of New South Wales
MICHAEL QUINLAN


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