As at 19 December 2019, 157 Australians were killed at work compared to 144 workers in 2018. 70 per cent of workers who died last year worked in transport, postal and warehousing; agriculture, forestry and fishing; and construction industries.
In 2019, the State government unveiled the Workplace Safety Legislation Amendment (Workplace Manslaughter and Other Matters) Bill 2019, which is due to commence no later than 1 July 2020.
These new laws will make fundamental amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) through the introduction of workplace manslaughter as a criminal offence in Victoria together with tough new penalties.
Whilst unions have welcomed these changes, other industries have not.
The new workplace manslaughter offence
The purpose of the new workplace manslaughter offence is to hold those with power and resources to improve safety to account . It is for that reason that these new laws will apply to employers, self-employers and company officers, those armed with the highest decision making and financial power.
The objectives of the offence is to prevent workplace deaths; to deter employers from breaching their OHS obligations; and to draw attention to the gravity of such conduct which causes death or serious injury at work.
The offence will capture negligent conduct which causes the death of an employee and/or a member of the public. Negligent conduct is defined as an act or omission which involves a great falling short of the standard of care of a reasonable person in circumstances involving a high risk of death or serious injury.
Not all have shown support for these changes and criticism has followed from Victoria's building industry, the farmers' federation as well as small businesses. Their concerns are that these laws would make employers responsible for the criminal negligence of others, that not enough responsibility is placed on workers; and that small businesses will be exposed as they do not have the adequate financial resources to fund the enforcement of workplace health and safety.
Furthermore it has been suggested that the workplace manslaughter offence should apply to anyone whose negligent actions cause death and not just companies and their officers.
We expect that the workplace manslaughter offence will apply to the most serious and extreme cases, such as:
- three people died in 2013 after a timber billboard and the brick wall it was attached to fell on Swanston Street. Neither of the Defendant's sought an assessment to determine the structural integrity of the wall, they failed to get a permit for the sign and did not test the impact that wind would have on a wall built in 1971. Their breach was considered to be of the most serious kind
- in 2011 Brodie's law was introduced in response to the death of Brodie Panlock who took her life following relentless bullying at work. The proposed new offence will apply to cases such as Brodie's, where an employer fails to provide a safe workplace and support for workers who are subjected to this behaviour.
The new laws will allow Courts to impose maximum penalties which include a jail term of up to 20 years, fines of up to $16,522,000 for corporations and fines of up to $1,650,000 for officers.
These penalties send a strong and clear message that the safety of Victorian workers is paramount and will not be compromised.
We hope that employers and their officers take note and provide adequate resourcing and support within their organisations to promote a safe workplace.
No one should die at work. Each and every worker deserves to be safe and return home to their loved ones every single day. If you would like to discuss this new legislation contact one of our WorkCover lawyers on (03) 9321 9988.