Ruth Williams The Sydney Age
January 30, 2011
BEFORE dawn one Friday late last year, a 32-year-old abattoir worker was cleaning a knocking-box at the Tabro Meat site near Wonthaggi. Somehow the machine controlling the box, which restrains cows so they can be stunned then slaughtered, started up.
The man was crushed.
With severe chest injuries and collapsed lungs, he was rushed by helicopter to The Alfred hospital, but he could not be saved.
Photo: Sharga Taite
It was the latest tragedy to take place inside a Victorian abattoir – a workplace most Victorians never venture into.
Each year, the meat industry contributes about $2.5 billion to the state’s economy, providing jobs and industry to towns around regional Victoria. At the same time, it inflicts an almost-unrivalled injury toll on its 18,600 workers, almost one in 10 of whom are teenagers.
In the past two years, WorkSafe, the state workplace regulator, has won convictions in cases involving workers losing fingers and thumbs to meat mixing machines or pneumatic cutters, and getting arms caught in unguarded conveyors.
Last financial year, there were 355 workers’ compensation claims in Victoria’s meat industry that required at least 10 days off work, or cost more than $580 in treatment, or both – almost one a day. Nationally the industry’s injury and illness rate remains twice as high as that in the construction industry, and four times the average of all workplaces.
Some may think that’s inevitable in an occupation involving sharp knives, complex machinery, dead and dying animals that can spread disease, and hard physical labour.
But barrister Trevor Monti, who has represented about 40 injured former meatworkers in the past two years, says any suggestion that abattoir injuries are unavoidable is wrong.
”Yes, it’s a difficult industry and the work can be hard,” he says. ”But with proper consideration given to the system of work, the risk of injury can be significantly reduced.”
WorkSafe figures, released to The Sunday Age, based on the premiums paid by companies for their compulsory WorkCover insurance, reveal some meat operations are far more hazardous places to work than others.
Last financial year, Victorian employers paid an average premium of about 1.39 per cent of their wages bill.
But the average meat operation paid 8.34 per cent, the second-highest rate of any industry in the state. Based on this figure, only shearers faced a bigger risk of injury at work.
Of the state’s 82 meat processors, the five most dangerous paid premiums of between 13.5 per cent and almost 17.5 per cent of their wages bill.
This year, the industry average has dropped to 7.72 per cent. But one employer is now paying – incredibly – a WorkCover premium of more than 20 per cent of its wages, a rate that WorkSafe’s deputy chief executive Ian Forsyth says is not acceptable.
”It means people are being regularly injured at that workplace,” he says.
WorkSafe declined to reveal the rates paid by individual abattoirs for privacy reasons. But The Sunday Age has been told that two abattoirs – Lance Creek-based Tabro Meat, which employs about 190 people, and the 160-worker Swan Hill Abattoirs, owned by Ashton Pty Ltd – paid premiums among the highest in the state last financial year.
A Swan Hill spokesman denied this, and Tabro Meat declined to comment.
Mr Forsyth says that ”there’s a lot of variance across the industry” between those who take workplace safety seriously, and those who ”still don’t get it”.
The Sunday Age spoke to several current or former meatworkers who have suffered or witnessed terrible injuries, and read statements by others.
One person, who served as a first aid officer at an abattoir in regional Victoria, told of seeing a ”significant, almost incomprehensible amount of injuries” – including workers hooking their own arms, and stabbing themselves in the leg and the face.
”There were a lot of these incidents … the general feeling was that nothing was done to fix any problems that may be contributing to them.”
The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union says WorkSafe needs to scrutinise the meat industry more closely. ”WorkSafe need to be game to prosecute, not just talk to people,” says the union’s national secretary Graham Bird.
Abattoir work now is ”harder, it’s longer and it’s faster” than it used to be before tallies were scrapped during the industry’s deregulation of the late 1990s. Before then, workers were expected to put through an agreed number of carcasses each day.
”[Now] there’s too much emphasis on speed, and on how much production goes through, and not enough emphasis on the health and safety of the workers doing the job,” Mr Bird says.
But Mr Forsyth has defended WorkSafe’s record, saying the authority has been ”very active” in the industry, pointing to a drop in claims to 355 last year from 638 a decade ago. ”Where employers are doing the wrong thing they should be in no doubt that we will prosecute,” he says.
One case it did not prosecute is that of 17-year-old trainee meatworker Sharga Taite, whose 2008 death may be the subject of a coronial inquest this year.
The teenager worked for six months at Warrnambool’s Midfield Meat abattoir. The day he died, Sharga was working as a slicer in the boning room – a non-stop process of converting freshly killed beasts into neatly packed boxes of meat cuts.
He mostly enjoyed the work, but his mother, Ann Lichtwark, says Sharga was occasionally distressed after struggling to maintain the relentless pace.
”He’d come home really tired,” she says. ”He’d say, ‘they pushed all day Mum, and I couldn’t keep up’.”
On August 16, 2008, Ms Lichtwark received a call at work from Warrnambool Hospital. Somehow her son had stabbed himself in the head with his knife, creating a wound just below his left eye. Sharga – two weeks shy of his 18th birthday – never regained consciousness. Two years later, Ms Lichtwark is searching for answers about how her son died.
At a directions hearing at the Warrnambool Coroner’s Court last year, counsel for the family raised allegations that Midfield Meat ”turned a blind eye” to ”very dangerous and unsafe” work behaviour at the abattoir that, it was suggested, led to Sharga Taite’s death.
The family’s lawyers, Western District firm Stringer Clark, have assembled a dossier of claims by former Midfield workers, in an effort to convince WorkSafe to prosecute. They include allegations of substandard training, understaffing, lax safety procedures and bullying. But both WorkSafe and the Director of Public Prosecutions have investigated Sharga’s death and elected not to prosecute Midfield.
In court, counsel for WorkSafe said their investigation found the training and supervision at the abattoir to be ”reasonably practicable”, and that the teenager’s training had been adequate.
WorkSafe says its investigation was ”rigorous and thorough”.
A key issue is the autopsy carried out on Sharga, which concluded that he died not from the knife wound, but from a spontaneous brain haemorrhage that took place just before, or at the same time as, he stabbed himself.
But this explanation is ”absolutely denied” by his family, and at a directions hearing in Warrnambool last year, their barrister, Trevor Monti, suggested there was a one in ”a trillion, trillion, trillion” chance that the death took place as the autopsy described it.
He referred to medical evidence from two leading neurosurgeons who concluded it was most likely he died from a brain haemorrhage caused by the stab injury.
Since 2003, Midfield Group companies have paid more than $120,000 in a series of safety-related fines and associated court-ordered costs – one after a 17-year-old trainee severed three fingers and a thumb while cutting hocks in 2006.
Andrew Westlake, Midfield’s group operations manager, said in a statement that Sharga Taite’s death had deeply affected ”everyone at Midfield … Our sympathy remains for his family, friends and work colleagues”.
Mr Westlake said workplace health and safety was a ”very high priority” at all Midfield’s sites, and workers received on-the-job training and industry standard training – which included occupational health and safety.
An inquest into Sharga Taite’s death appears likely, with another directions hearing expected soon.
The big question is whether his death could have been prevented. It is a question his mother wants answered.
”It is the worst thing in my life,”Ms Lichtwark says. ”They took away something that I need, and it’s missing. My heart can’t heal until I know what really happened.”
Story from The Sydney Age access at <http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/risking-life-and-limb-to-feed-the-nation-20110129-1a93c.html> on 19 April 2011.