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How a thriving WA economy could put workplace safety at risk

Thursday, 06 May 2021

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New Edith Cowan University (ECU) research has revealed that economic growth in Western Australia could result in more workplace injuries.

A study of 577,778 occupational injuries in Western Australia between 2003 and 2019 found that injuries in the manufacturing and construction industries increased as the economy improved.

The manufacturing industry had the highest relative rise in workplace injuries as business expanded, with one per cent growth in gross state product (GSP) resulting in a 0.2 per cent increase in injuries. This is nearly double the rate of the construction industry, which recorded a rise of 0.12 per cent in injuries over the same period.

ECU PhD candidate Tanya Jenke said the findings highlight a concerning trend as Western Australia’s economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“WA’s manufacturing industry is typically built on small to medium size businesses, which are often sensitive to rapid changes in the economy,” said Ms Jenke.

“In boom times more people are hired, more work comes in and the demands on the workforce and infrastructure increases. This puts a lot of strain on small businesses and sometimes workplace safety is compromised.

“With a growing focus on manufacturing in WA’s future, it’s more important than ever for businesses to understand their workplace risks and ensure they have the resources and structures in place to protect their workers.”

Safety spotlight

Ms Jenke said an increased reliance on contract and casual workers with limited knowledge of manufacturing hazards and processes could be behind an increase in injuries.

“In manufacturing, there’s machinery and processes that have safety risks. Increased workloads can lead to less downtime for machinery, longer work hours, higher stress, new staff and the combination of these factors can sometimes lead to more work injuries,” said Ms Jenke.

“When the demands are high mistakes can happen and the safety structures and systems in place can be stretched.”

High risk industries

The study also looked at the mining industry and found the sector bucked the trend with workplace injuries decreasing as economic conditions improved.

“It was quite interesting to find that a typically high-risk industry actually improved safety,” said Ms Jenke.

“This could be because mining has very high safety standards and employee training programs due to the high-risk nature of the work.

“Western Australia’s mining industry is also dominated by large global companies with the resources, infrastructure and organisational resilience to withstand fluctuating economic conditions.”

Ms Jenke said the study highlighted the importance for businesses to understand the patterns of occupational injuries.

“This information will help organisations ensure they can implement more effective and resilient safety systems and quickly identify when they might need to act,” she said.

‘An investigation of the influence of economic cycles on safety performance in Western Australia’ was published in Safety Science.

To find out more about  ECU’s occupational health and safety courses, visit the Occupational Health and Safety course webpage.

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