Workplace safety under the spotlight

A RECENT Court of Petty Sessions decisions has shown company directors that they risk large penalties for safety breaches in their workplace.

And the penalties could become tougher, even if the WA Government does not follow some of the suggestions from two reports into workplace safety by Robert Laing.

Go-Crete director Warren Crawford was prosecuted for failing to ensure his company provided and maintained a safe working environment. He was fined $25,000 and the company was fined $40,000.

The prosecutions resulted from the electrocution death of Go-Crete employee Toni Meehan.

Mr Meehan had been helping to steady a pre-cast concrete wall panel being moved into position by a crane on the construction site of a tavern in Cloverdale. The chains on the crane came into contact with overhead powerlines, causing his electrocution.

WorkSafe WA commissioner Brian Bradley said although the fines were relatively high in this case, they were only a fraction of the maximum penalties under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

The maximum penalty for breaches of the Act is $200,000.

Nor is it the highest penalty the courts have imposed against a director for safety breaches. A director was fined $35,000 for a fatal chemical spill, but that penalty was later reduced to $5,000 on appeal.

However, penalties against directors for workplace deaths have historically been low.

Previously, a fatality for a forklift accident drew a $1,000 penalty and two deaths from workplace falls drew $7,000 and $5,000 respectively.

Jackson McDonald partner Greg Smith said there seemed to be some pressure for senior officer accountability for workplace deaths.

“The tools have always been there yet there have never been serious prosecutions against directions,” Mr Smith said.

“Most of the prosecutions that have occurred have been against small companies where the directors have been closely involved with onsite works.

“Laing certainly flagged the issue of industrial manslaughter in his reports.”

Mr Laing recommends introducing the new offences of corporate manslaughter and negligently causing serious injury, and increasing maximum penalties to $5 million and five years’ jail.

However, Mr Laing stresses the term manslaughter carries inappropriate connotations for the workplace and suggests “culpable behaviour causing death” be used instead.

No Australian State or Territory has a corporate manslaughter statute on its books. Victoria has been trying to introduce one for the past two years.

Mr Laing suggests closing a loophole that allows directors or senior officers of companies found personally liable for breaches of the Act to escape punishment.

Under WA’s current laws a company can be convicted of an offence but avoid any liability if it goes into liquidation.

Mr Laing also recommends doing away with the Mines Safety and Inspection Act and making minesite safety the responsibility of WorkSafe.

There are several hurdles his reports have to clear before the Government even considers making its recommendations law.

The reports were put out for industry comment and that comment period closed last week.

Consumer and Employment Protection Minister John Kobelke is waiting on the revised report before considering further legislative action.

Industry groups believe some recommendations in the reports are of a concern.

They believe there is a greater possibility for workplace safety to become an industrial matter, causing the system to become adversarial rather than consultative.

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