I read a tweet today that said the reason our (AAA rated) economy is “so bad” is because we’re over-regulated. This is not the first time I’ve come across this idea – that unnecessary bureaucratic hoops make our manufacturing uncompetitive with the rest of the world. This is by no means my area of expertise, and I’m sure there are any number of areas where there’s useless red tape and nonsense – that a friend has to demonstrate, every year, that her son’s autism hasn’t somehow not only been cured but that this reversion to neurotypicality has been overlooked by the staff at his autism-specific school, for example.

But what I think of first, when I read tweets like this, is China. When I read Joe Bennett’s book Where Underpants Come From, one of the things that stayed with me was this:

[China] competes but plays to different rules. It will cut any corner. An article in the China Daily… announced that fatal workplace accidents had fallen 10 per cent…. This month only 7321 people died at work. That’s a mere 250 people a day…

There are many reasons why China’s workplace death rate is so high – starting with the fact that their population is so much higher than, say, Australia’s that even small percentages mean big numbers.

So what about comparing like with like? That’s more difficult than it first appears – different countries collect and collate their OHS statistics differently. So Victorian WorkCover figures of injuries per million hours worked, though useful for comparing one year or industry with another, are hard to weigh against Britain’s rate per 100,000 workers. Comparisons are sometimes more difficult, but not always – Chinese work place deaths in 2012 were 11.1% per 100,000 workers, compared with 2.19% of US workers.

Certainly the figures, however, measured, are improving in China – for the past five years there’s been an annual drop in both reported accidents and reported work place deaths – 3.1% and 4.7% respectively from 2011 to 2012 alone, and 33.4% and 29.1$ respectively from 2007 (source).

But those numbers are still unacceptably high for someone coming from a country with our track record.

Take one industry, albeit the most dangerous – coal mining. Though the industry employs less than 4% of the Chinese labour force, coal mining fatalities comprise 45% of all work place deaths in the nation:

In 2001, 9,650 fatal industrial accidents occurred, killing 11,047 workers, 5,670 of whom were coal miners.2 In 2006, the coal mining “accidents” claimed the lives of 4,746 mine workers, roughly at an average of 13/day.3 These fatalities were eleven times higher than in Russia, and 15 times higher than in India. [source]

Though mining fatalities in China have dropped to almost a third of their 2002 level,

China’s coal mines are the most dangerous in the world even though the industry’s safety record has improved in recent years as smaller, illegal mines have been closed. Chinese miners are 350 times more likely to die at their workplace than their American or British counterparts. In terms of production the statistics are even worse. In China there are 7.29 deaths per million tons of coal produced, compared to 0.04 deaths in the United States, 0.47 deaths in India, and 0.23 deaths in Poland. There are nearly as many fatalities a day in Chinese mines as there are in U.S. mines in a year. Chinese officials acknowledge more than 2,000 coal mining deaths annually, compared with fewer than 50 in the United States. [source]

350 times! And that’s just deaths – not the number of workers maimed, injured, or exposed to toxins through inadequate or absent personal protective equipment.

So what makes Western workplaces safer? In China “officially sanctioned unions are seen as toothless, while independent unions have been banned by a Communist Party suspicious of other sources of power.” [source]

Why does that matter?

Because from the UK to Canada, Australia to the US, unionised work places have better health and safety records, lower rates of injury and less lost time. True in 1993, when a study performed for the Canadian Ministries of Labour concluded that union-supported health and safety committees have a significant “impact on reducing injury rates”, true today:

Later studies for the Ontario Workplace Health and Safety Agency “found that 78-79% of unionised workplaces reported high compliance with health and safety legislation while only 54-61% of non-unionised workplaces reported such compliance.” But this isn’t a Canadian phenomenon. US academic Adam Seth Litwin, now a board member of the US Federal Reserve, then with the London School of Economics, concluded a review last year of health and safety in UK workplaces that unions dramatically improve safety in even the most hazardous workplaces.
A non-union office worker was, by Litwin’s calculations, 13 times more likely to suffer an injury than was a closed-shop union worker on an industrial assembly line. [source

Every single significant occupational health and safety measure – from regulations to inspections, safety equipment and penalties, WorkSafe and security officers in emergency departments, has come from unions.

Don’t get me wrong – we still have a way to go. If we didn’t I wouldn’t have colleague who’s still in hospital after spinal surgery. Few work place “accidents” are really accidental – the overwhelming majority are preventable. But there have been enormous strides, and Australian work places are some of the safest in the world.

So the next time you think that regulations are standing in the way of our competing with China, which has a lower cost of living (allowing lower pay), virtually no environmental protection (by the Chinese government’s own figures, over 90 per cent of urban water is contaminated by industrial or organic waste), and a woeful human rights record, think about what we’d really be giving up. As the WorkSafe ads say, the most important reason for work place safety isn’t as work at all.