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The health and safety costs of casual employment

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There are a range of occupational health and safety obligations facing employers, according to a recent OHS study.

Managing Partner of workplace safety advisor Bartier Perry, Will Murphy, presented a paper together with Maria McNamara, a researcher at the University of New South Wales, at the 2006 Sydney Safety Show, presented by Australian Exhibitions and Conferences.

Bartier Perry sponsored research by Ms McNamara from the Industrial Relations Research Centre at UNSW into the hidden health and safety costs of casual employment.

According to the study, there has been a substantial increase in casual or temporary employment. Employers are drawn to the use of casual employment because it is thought to contribute to lower labour costs and improved flexibility. However, increasing evidence points to the finding that the growth of casual employment is not necessarily a path to productivity or cost-saving and there are a number of hidden costs in employing casual workers. The study cited international research that linked casual employment to decreased job satisfaction, motivation, productivity, performance, increased turnover, stress and occupational injury and illness levels.

An employer’s legal obligations to ensure a worker’s health and safety at work apply regardless of the nature of the employee’s employment. Workplace injuries do not discriminate between casual and permanent employees. 

Casual work in Australia has exhibited one of the highest growth rates amongst OECD countries. There are currently 2.3 million casual workers in Australia and more than one in four of all Australian workers are casual employees. Statistics also show that 23 per cent of all male workers are casual up from 13 per cent in 1990 and 32 per cent of all female workers, up from 28 per cent. 

The industries with the highest casual workers are accommodation, cafes and restaurants with 59 per cent of employees, agriculture, forestry and fishing 49 per cent, retail 45 per cent, and cultural and recreational services 45 per cent.

According to research, a substantial number of casuals work in the nation’s most dangerous industries. Agriculture and forestry employees almost 50 per cent of casual workers, construction 24 per cent, transport 22 per cent, manufacturing 16 per cent and mining 14 per cent.
Common and statute law dictates that the employer has a responsibility of care to ensure the health and safety of its employees in the workplace. This extends to those present in the workplace, who are not directly employed by the employer. 

According to the study, there are three main reasons why casual workers are at risk: economic or reward pressures; disorganised or inadequate supervision and training and inadequacies in regulation or compliance practices.

Casuals are in a particularly vulnerable economic position which on occasions forces them to accept or perform work without regards to safety issues. Statistics show that 37 per cent of all casual workers want more work because they need the income, and 61 per cent of casual workers experience variations in their weekly earnings, compared to 18 per cent of permanent workers.  

New Work Choices legislation has not overridden OHS laws. Employers must not view the use of casual labour as a means of avoiding OHS duties and responsibilities. Casual workers must receive adequate training and supervision. Communication systems within the organisation should encourage the development of a safety culture.

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