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Mourn the dead, fight like hell for the living

April 30, 2024

Each year, on the 28th of April, we come together to recognise Workers’ Memorial Day. This solemn occasion is an opportunity to reflect on those who have been killed, injured, disabled, or made unwell by their work.

While we are proud to take a leading role in many of the memorial events specific to our industries, events like Workers’ Memorial Day allow us to remember those we’ve lost and advocate a future where all workers go home safe at the end of the day. Every year in Australia, 200 workers are killed at work, with more than 5,000 dying from work related diseases.

Workers’ Memorial Day was established in the United States in 1989, with the date chosen to commemorate the establishing of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This date has since been adopted by unions internationally and across all industries as a day of solidarity and action in the name of workplace safety.

Although Workers’ Memorial Day has a shorter history than some of the important dates we celebrate, its origin is an important recognition of the need for governments to set and enforce workplace safety standards because we can’t rely on employers alone.

As unionists safety is at the heart of everything we do. Motivating all of our activities is the belief that every worker has a right to be safe at work, regardless of the supposed danger of their workplace. Whether caused by an industrial accident or chronic illness, every workplace death was preventable, and should have been avoided.

For over a century, safety has been one of our absolute priorities as a Union. MEU members work in hazardous environments, surrounded by risks that must be assessed and mitigated on a daily basis. Mine operators seeking to maximise production foster complacency which can, and does, lead to tragic consequences.

Our industries, and the conditions we work under, have been shaped by disaster and the avoidable loss of life. The early days of Australian mining were defined by the ‘free labour’ of convicts and economically dependent workers, who were considered expendable provided that production could be maintained. Disasters, such as Mt Mulligan in 1921 in northern Queensland or Bellbird in 1923 in the Hunter, claimed dozens of lives and left deep lasting scars on their communities.

But we must also remember the advocacy that has followed these disasters. Each substantial improvement to safety conditions was won through the activism of the workers who put their lives at risk. It is critical to recognise that modern safety standards did not come cheaply but were paid for in the blood of our forebears and comrades.

For instance, both Mt Mulligan and Bellbird preceded the largest reforms to coal mine safety legislation in both New South Wales and Queensland. These reforms saw an expansion and formalisation of mines rescue services, and the requirement for the deputization of experienced mineworkers as safety inspectors with the power to stop work. This role continues today through our site and industry safety and health inspectors, known as check inspectors.

While there has clearly been significant improvements to safety in the intervening century, the MEU will never be complacent in fighting for the necessary changes to keep mining and energy workers safe.

The re-emergence of Black Lung in the coal industry in 2015 was a wake-up call that has led to significant reform around dust exposure and diagnosis and treatment of mine lung dust disease. More recently, our safety advocacy has extended to psychosocial hazards and fighting for the employment security we know is necessary to empower workers to speak up for safety.

Because it is our responsibility as a Union to ensure that we continue to advocate in the strongest possible terms for improved safety, until every worker returns home at the end of the day and finishes their working lives in good health. Just as we can’t rely on employers

The Mining and Energy Union is an indispensable component of the safety regime in our industries, because nobody has more at stake workplace safety than the workers whose bodies are on the line.

Safety is Union Business

Stephen Smyth is the General Vice President of the Mining and Energy Union

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