While many businesses are concentrating on their COVID-19 recovery plan, the Victorian government is proceeding with its introduction of workplace manslaughter laws from 1 July, putting safety side by side with criminal law by introducing hefty prison terms.
Rigby Cooke Lawyers partner and accredited workplace relations specialist Rob Jackson said that many business owners are concerned and uncertain about the state’s new workplace manslaughter regime.
“Many owners and directors are looking for clarification on the laws and are worried by the prospect of large fines and a possible prison sentence if somebody dies at work,” Mr Jackson said.
He warned that with businesses focusing on the lasting financial and economic effects of COVID-19, the impacts of these laws may be not be top of mind for many.
“Ultimately, the purpose of the legislation is to get bosses to take safety seriously — something they need to do now, despite the pressures of COVID-19 recovery planning,” Mr Jackson said.
“To boards that have already developed robust health and safety plans and have the documentation to prove the implementation of those plans, these laws should pose no concern.”
Under the new laws, a director convicted of workplace manslaughter faces a maximum penalty of up to 25 years in prison and a fine of up to $16.5 million.
In Queensland, where similar laws were enacted in 2017, the first prosecution has already commenced against the directors of Brisbane Auto Recycling Pty Ltd. They each face up to 20 years’ imprisonment for a workplace incident in which a worker was killed by a reversing forklift.
“Now is the time for businesses to be getting their house in order when it comes to safety,” Mr Jackson said.
“In my experience, many boards have developed a safety policy for the company, but their rank-and-file employees are totally unaware of the policy, or how it applies to their job on a day-to-day basis.”
It is this gap between what a board or a business owner assumes, and the reality of the factory floor or a construction site, that could put directors in the firing line.
He continued: “A lack of resources, even due to the economic effects of the pandemic, will not be an excuse should there be a workplace death.
“Directors who do not have a safety background need to educate themselves about the particular health and safety issues relevant to both their industry and business.”
He advised all business owners to become “well versed” in the safety aspects of their business, to ensure workplace deaths are not a result of their failure to implement effective safety policies. This includes paying close attention to mental wellbeing, too, Mr Jackson added.
“As has been noted, these manslaughter laws also apply to cases of suicide potentially caused by workplace bullying or harassment,” he said.
“Directors need to ensure, therefore, that they consider mental health in any workplace health and safety policy they develop.”
Ultimately, he noted, these laws do not create a new offence leading to prison. Victoria already has an offence where any person, who recklessly endangers the safety of another, can be jailed for up to five years.
“These new offences significantly increase the penalties for directors, but employees or supervisors cannot be prosecuted for workplace manslaughter,” Mr Jackson said.
“I would urge all directors to educate themselves about their industry, their business and their legal obligations. This is not just to minimise the potential of prosecution under these new offences, but to protect the lives and wellbeing of their employees.”