The construction sector accounts for about 15 per cent of workplace deaths. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Transport, agriculture lead death count

Tuesday, 11 September, 2018 - 09:46

With higher fines, longer prison sentences and possibly industrial manslaughter laws coming to WA, Business News has analysed trends in workplace fatalities.

The recent Senate inquiry into workplace deaths in Western Australia heard tragic testimony from affected families and calls from unions for tougher penalties.

When asked about the issue last month, Premier Mark McGowan indicated he might follow the lead of his counterparts in Queensland and Victoria and introduce industrial manslaughter laws.

“I think industrial manslaughter laws are worthwhile,” Mr McGowan told reporters.

“Too many people are being injured in the workforce, so we’re constantly on the lookout for new things we can do to improve the situation.

“We want to make sure people are protected in the workplace, we want to make sure that if there’s gross negligence and people are killed, the people responsible are held accountable.

“We need to make sure we consult the community, the union movement, business and the like to look at what sort of model we could bring in.”

Industrial manslaughter laws would be on top of large increases in civil penalties facing individuals and businesses that breach workplace health and safety laws, courtesy of recent WA legislation.

The maximum penalty for gross negligence causing death or serious harm has increased to $2.7 million for companies, and to $550,000 and five years’ in prison for individuals.

That applies in the case of a first offence. For subsequent offences, the maximum can be $3.5 million for companies and $680,000 for individuals, plus the possibility of prison.

By comparison, the previous maximum was $625,000 for companies and a fine of $312,500 and two years’ imprisonment for individuals.

In practice, penalties handed down have rarely approached the maximum level.

In a notable case this year, Axedale Holdings, trading as Shaw’s Cartage Contractors, was fined $160,000 after pleading guilty to causing the deaths of two Irish construction workers who were crushed when concrete panels fell off a truck while they were having a smoko.

A forklift driver was fined $11,000 in February of 2017 after impaling a co-worker with his forklift four years earlier in Narrogin, despite training and warnings about their behaviour leading up to the incident.

Danger spots

Data from Safe Work Australia shows that the transport and agriculture sectors account for 55 per cent of workplace deaths in WA (see graph).

The construction sector accounts for about 15 per cent while the mining sector, which almost invariably attracts headlines, accounts for about 12 per cent.

In total, there were 191 workplace deaths recorded in 2017 across the country, with 20 occurring in WA.

That is up from 182 fatalities recorded across Australia in 2016, although unchanged at 20 fatalities in WA.

The average number of deaths per year in WA sits at 28 for the period between 2012 and 2017 and appears to be trending down slightly (see graph).

WA’s fatality rate was the third lowest nationally at 1.6 per 100,000 workers, behind Victoria and the ACT, in 2017.

 

Differences in reporting requirements mean that data collected by WA’s Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety paints a different picture.

The WA data shows a total of 199 workplace deaths over the 10 years to June 2017, an average of just fewer 20 per year.

Nationwide, the most prevalent causes were vehicle collisions, causing 60 deaths, followed by being hit by moving objects at 35, and falls from a height with 28 deaths.

Machinery operation and driving is the occupation that has historically recorded the highest number of fatalities per year and has maintained the highest fatality rate at 7.1 per 100,000 workers with 55 deaths last year.

The mining sector contributed less than 2 per cent to the national fatality figure for 2017, with three deaths in the industry, one of which was in WA.

The only WA fatality occurred in the Pilbara in October, due to dehydration and renal failure; this was classified as a workplace fatality after an investigation found it did not result from natural causes.

Another mine site fatality in WA was at Rio Tinto’s Yandicoogina site following an explosion in early July, however, this wasn’t classified a workplace death due to reporting criteria.

The death of a worker at Iluka Resources’ Cataby site following a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting is still under investigation by the department and hasn’t been classified as a workplace fatality.

Figures for work-related fatalities differ between state jurisdictions due to legislative inconsistency.

For example, in South Australia, injuries sustained on the journey between home and work can be considered as a workplace related injury, or fatality.

WA legislation explicitly states that injuries sustained on the journey between the two shall not be treated as a workplace incident.

Another noteworthy point is that reported workplace fatalities don’t include incidents of self-inflicted fatalities, irrespective of the industry or type of work.

As well as the recent WA legislation increasing penalties under existing laws, the state government plans to introduce a modernised Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act for WA next year.

It will cover all workplaces in WA and be aligned with the legislation in other Australian jurisdictions. 

“The new Bill will strengthen the national harmonisation of laws and facilitate a consistent approach of health and safety in the workplace,” Commerce and Industrial Relations Minister Bill Johnston said earlier this year.

The likely shape of the new Bill was set out in a package of recommendations released in June for public consultation.

A briefing paper from law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth has identified significant changes employers need to prepare for.

These include increased responsibilities on boards and senior management to adopt a more onerous due diligence standard in their approach to workplace health and safety.

Specifically, an officer must exercise due diligence to ensure that the person conducting the business or undertaking complies with their duty or obligation.

There will also be a new responsibility to positively engage and consult with other businesses, such as contractors, suppliers and clients in relation to how workplace safety is being managed.

Another recommendation is for inspectors to require production of documents and answers to questions without the prerequisite of physical entry to a workplace.

It was also proposed that inspectors have the power to record interviews without consent, having given notice that recording was taking place.