Data shows that an average of 16 young trade workers die on the job yearly in Australia, according to Alex Brewster of ABC News Australia.
Some recent examples include a teenage apprentice falling four meters, a man being rolled over by a bulldozer and a surveyor dying on a job site.
Not only are young trade workers dying while working, but they are also being injured at an increased rate. Between 2013 and 2022, 163 workers under the age of 25 died from a work-related traumatic injury.
Carpenter Mitch Opperman said apprentices often get used as cheap labor, which leads to injuries.
“Generally, as an apprentice, you get pushed and move fast,” Opperman said. “You’re doing the labor work.”
The now-32-year-old resident of Capalaba, Australia, said he saw two incidents where apprentices were injured when he was in his early twenties that caused him to evaluate his working arrangements.
While working eight stories up on a high-rise in Brisbane, Australia, in 2013, a colleague had a piece of glass drop onto his shin, severing tendons and forcing him to have six months off work.
A year later, while working on a residential building, he was told to stand on two planks of wood suspended between two small ladders with four other apprentices.
“I told them, ‘Stuff that,’ and the planks ended up snapping in half while they were holding a whole sheet of glass and wood above them, and they fell in a pile on the floor and the sheet fell on them,” Opperman said.
The group sustained only minor injuries, but Opperman said he refuses to work on residential worksites anymore because of safety concerns.
On average, over one young worker dies per month
Data from Safe Work Australia showed young workers are dying at job sites at a rate of more than one per month.
Of the 163 young worker deaths, the majority occurred in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry (24 percent), the construction industry (24 percent) and the transport, postal and warehousing industry (17 percent). Men made up almost 90 percent of the deaths, and a vehicle incident was the primary cause of death.
However, workers under 25 years old was the age group with the lowest number of fatalities, with 55- to 64-year-olds recording the greatest number of deaths (437) over the same period.
Construction Forestry Maritime Mining Energy Union National Secretary Zach Smith said more needs to be done to protect workers.
“Each one of those deaths is preventable,” Smith said. “It’s clear that there’s still quite a number of developers that put profit over the safety of their workers; that put the need to finish the job on time or under budget ahead of doing the job safely.”
Apprentices should still feel safe
Craig Dearling, general manager of workforce services at Master Builders Queensland, said young people should still feel safe and confident in starting a trade apprenticeship.
“Every injury — and I’m not just talking death or serious injury — is a tragedy, and I know that builders and subcontractors invest a lot of time and money into safety,” Dearling said. “We’ve got some very strict regulations in Queensland, and I don’t see any need at the present time for us to introduce any new safety measures. I would hate to think that young people would read about tragedies like this and think, ‘I don’t want to take up a career’ because it’s a very rewarding and worthwhile career.”
Smith said employers should be providing a safe space for young workers to earn money.
“Let’s make sure that rogue employers are held to account, let’s make sure that safety regulators are doing the job of keeping workers safe,” Smith said.
Rise in apprentice injuries
A Safe Work Australia report released in July found that, over the five years prior to the 2020-2021 financial year, there were 11,490 serious workers compensation claims for apprentices and trainees.
“These are not insignificant injuries,” the report stated. “Serious workers’ compensation claims are those that result in five or more days lost from work.”
Over the four years up to the 2020-2021 financial year, the number of serious claims for apprentices and trainees rose by 41 percent to almost 2,500 despite the number of apprentices and trainees increasing by just 13 percent. Technicians and trades workers accounted for almost 90 percent of these claims.
Smith said regulators need to clamp down on employers with poor safety records.
“That should be the primary focus of our state and territory regulators,” Smith said. “They need to enforce safety and put workers’ lives front and center.”
Dearling said apprentices are under strict supervision when they step onto worksites.
“It’s not just, ‘Here’s the hammer, here’s a nail, start hanging doors,’” Dearling said. “It’s working under direct supervision, and when everyone follows their obligations and complies, we really shouldn’t be seeing these sorts of tragedies.”
Opperman said he thinks the work culture has improved since he was an apprentice.
“Ten years ago, it was like, ‘Don’t even complain, just do what they tell you,’” Opperman said. “Now, I think it’s getting a bit more relaxed and there’s better work conditions.”