Safety at Work

I spoke in parliament yesterday in favour of new legislation that restores workers' compensation coverage to public servants who are injured during recess breaks.
Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011
1 June 2011

In 2006, a Commonwealth public servant in Queensland told the story of having sprained an ankle just two metres from the front door of his building while going out for a lunch break. Would any of us reasonably think that that was not a workplace accident? Would any of us reasonably seek to deny someone who suffered such an injury fair compensation? The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 may look technical, but in its essence it is about fairness and it is about equity. If you have ever been injured at work, you know that it can be a time of incredible stress and uncertainty. This bill provides greater assurance to employees covered by the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act about their rights and entitlements. This bill also expands the application of the SRC Act to ensure that people deployed on dangerous missions, whether here or overseas, have greater certainty about their workers compensation coverage.

The recess breaks amendment reinstates a previously held entitlement to workers compensation insurance coverage for workers on unpaid recess breaks. Leaving work for a coffee, for lunch or for an appointment during your own time currently leaves public servants without workers compensation coverage. This means that public servants participating in a lunchtime stroll around Lake Burley Griffin are left without workers compensation coverage, even when the walk is part of a charity activity supported by their department. People who slip on the frosty Canberra grass on a winter's morning on their way to warm up with a coffee or a hot chocolate are denied coverage for any injury they sustain.

Under current arrangements, workers on a recess break may only claim some compensation through their motor vehicle insurance. So the workers who are punished by these Howard government reforms removing coverage for recess breaks are those workers who are being more socially and environmentally responsible. Restoring this coverage to workers covered by the Comcare scheme is important to me as the member for Fraser, not just because of the significant number of Australian Public Service employees living in my electorate but also because the Comcare scheme covers employees of the Australian Capital Territory government. Additionally, employees of non-Commonwealth licensees that self-insure under the Comcare scheme will see those rights restored to their working conditions. The rights restored by this bill apply to ACT government employees as well as Australian government employees. Unusually for public sector workers, ACT government employees are not able to lobby or negotiate with their direct employer over their workers compensation arrangements. In that respect, as their representative here in the big house in Canberra, I feel an additional duty to ensure that the rights of these workers are improved.

Workers compensation coverage is a basic right in Australia. Most voters would reasonably expect that if an employee is injured by their work or while carrying out their work then they should be compensated for their injury. I need to be clear here and stress again to the House that workers compensation coverage for employees on recess breaks is not a new entitlement. It restores a right previously held by Commonwealth and ACT government employees from the introduction of workers compensation insurance in 1988 right up until 2006 when, as a part of then Prime Minister John Howard's broader attacks on the rights of workers, the Liberal and National parties saw fit to deny their own public servants rights enjoyed by workers across other jurisdictions in Australia. In fact, South Australia and Tasmania are the only two jurisdictions aside from those in the Comcare scheme that do not provide workers compensation coverage for their employees during recess breaks. It is a right enjoyed by most Australian workers that must be restored to workers covered by the Comcare scheme.

As well as restoring rights, extension of workers compensation coverage to recess breaks removes a substantial number of grey areas. Think about the following situations: an employee leaves work for a coffee with their supervisor to discuss a range of work related issues; an employee takes a work related telephone call on their lunch break; an employee runs into a contact or a colleague on their lunch break and proceeds to have a long conversation about a work related matter; and a group of employees attend a work lunch. Restoration of workers compensation coverage for recess breaks means that workers at workplaces that do not provide on-site lunch facilities are not offered different treatment to workers lucky enough to have on-site lunch facilities. Similarly, work sponsored health and fitness activities that occur off-site during breaks currently leave employees exposed to situations where they are not covered by workers compensation, and have left employers reluctant to encourage off-site health initiatives. I am proud that my local public sector workplaces encourage their employees to get out of the workplace during their unpaid lunch break to undertake community activities, healthy activities and fitness activities. But I am disappointed that the current law acts as a disincentive for people to participate in these healthy activities.

There are plenty of examples around Canberra of healthy lunchtime activities. There are walking clubs, there is netball, Tai Chi, Pilates and Zumba. Department of Defence employees use onsite gyms, badminton courts and pool facilities, participate in lunchtime competitions including volleyball, touch football, basketball and softball, and participate in lunchtime classes including aerobics, weights, resistance training and ballroom dancing. The way the laws currently stand, it is unclear whether the employees would be covered for workers compensation purposes in these situations. Breaks during the working day cannot always be divided neatly into 'working' and 'not working'. We need laws that recognise the diversity and flexibility of working arrangements.

As to time limits, this bill adds further benefits and protections to workers by introducing statutory time limits for the determination of claims. Procedural rights can be just as important as substantive rights to allow people to access their entitlements. Without time limits an application for compensation could technically be allowed to sit with a decision maker for days, weeks, months or years on end before a decision is finally made. Administrative law has long recognised the need for decisions by government to be made in a timely manner. Introducing time limits provides assurance to workers in the Comcare scheme that their claim will be dealt with by a particular date. Making these limits a statutory right rather than an administrative process means that these rights are given greater prominence and certainty. Claimants can rely on the laws to remain constant and reliable.

For those that have suffered an injury at work, uncertainty about their workers compensation claim can cause considerable distress. People who suffer an injury at work, and are unable to attend work as a result, are forced to sit at home and wonder about when they will be able to return to full health and return to work. It can be an incredibly distressing time and it allows plenty of time for the injured worker to worry about their claim and their entitlements. Providing as much assurance and certainty as we can about when and how a worker will know their precise entitlements is a key step forward in ensuring that our workers compensation system is as effective as possible at getting people back into work. Evidence in the Comcare review showed that Comcare had a much lower rate than the national average for assessing and determining claims. Providing statutory time limits should encourage Comcare to provide the same level of service to workers covered under that scheme as workers from other jurisdictions.

I have long supported the principle of policy based on considered evidence. The changes to time limits proposed in the bill arose from the review of Comcare conducted by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Statistics about these time limits leave me convinced that without an adequate statutory requirement workers will continue to be denied important rights with respect to their workers compensation.

One new aspect of this bill, which was not a part of the Comcare review, is the extension of workers compensation coverage to particular areas or particular classes of employees. The bill amends the SRC Act to provide workers compensation coverage for injuries sustained while an employee is working in a 'declared place' outside Australia. This is above and beyond any existing extraterritoriality provisions and will provide additional certainty for employees on overseas postings about their workers compensation entitlements. This means that the relevant minister can declare high-risk places, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, to be places where workers compensation coverage will be continuous for all Commonwealth employees. The very act of being in a dangerous situation, as determined by the minister, means that a worker is deemed to continuously be at work and any injuries sustained while in that dangerous place as a result of work will be compensable.

The changed coverage also applies where a person is a member of a 'declared category' of employees whose work requires deployment to places outside Australia. The need for this flexibility arises specifically in relation to the establishment of the Australian Civilian Corps, who will assist in disaster relief, stabilisation and postconflict resolution in developing countries and failed states. The effect of these changes will be to provide 24/7 coverage under the SRC Act for employees exposed to unusually high risks while working outside Australia.

I spoke recently at the Lowy Institute about the need for targeted, effective foreign aid. The Australian Civilian Corps is very much in this mould. It will provide expertise where it is most needed: after natural disasters or in times of acute stress. We have a duty to help our neighbours and an obligation to provide our expertise on a global scale. But in providing this aid we should recognise that the Australian government still has a role in protecting its people who are sent into these dangerous situations and should ensure that their workers compensation is assured and not left open to interpretation or confusion. Providing continuous workers compensation coverage for such groups will also assure them, both before and during their deployment, that there is a safety net in case anything goes wrong during their deployment.

I am proud to be part of a political party that always seeks to look after the rights of workers. I am proud to be part of a political party that looks after the substantive and procedural rights of people who are unfortunate enough to be injured at work. This bill goes some way to undoing the damage of the Howard years on public servants in Canberra and throughout Australia—those working for the Australian government or the ACT government, as well as non-Commonwealth licensees. I am also proud to be a part of a political party that recognises its obligations when new and challenging situations arise for people carrying out work in our name in places of high risk or danger. I commend this bill to the House.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.