Corporate manslaughter and accountability Reply

Corporate manslaughter, or industrial manslaughter as it is referred to in Australia, was not allowed to gain traction in Australia, except for in the Australian Capital Territory.

3i14 coverThe policy has been allowed to fade from the books of most of the Australian left-wing parties but for a while, corporate manslaughter was THE issue.  In fact over the last 10 years, it has been the only time that directors and CEOs from thousands of companies have paid serious attention to safety management.

The offence of corporate manslaughter seems to have lost little of its momentum in England.  Recently England instigated its first prosecution for corporate manslaughter.

It reminded SafetyAtWorkBlog of an interview we conducted with David Bergman on the issue in April 2002.  David Bergman has been the Executive Director of the Centre for Corporate Accountability for ten years and, only last week, was part of a conference in London on “Directors’ Duties, Corporate Manslaughter and Safety Enforcement“.

Below is the text of that 2002 interview

Manslaughter Lobbying – 2002 Interview with David Bergman

David Bergman is the CEO of the Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA) located in London, England.  He spoke exclusively to [Safety At Work magazine] about the issue of “corporate killing” legislation and the activities of his organisation.

SAW: Can you provide an outline of what the CCA does?

DB: The organisation is a not-for-profit organisation. Its core purpose is to promote worker and public safety and it does this by focussing on two ideas – improved law enforcement and greater corporate accountability. We have three main activities, we run a work-related death advice service which is a core of our work whereby we provide free, independent and confidential advice to families bereaved from work-related death on how to ensure that an adequate criminal investigation is undertaken into the death and that the evidence is subjected to proper scrutiny by prosecuting bodies who have the duty to determine whether criminal offences have been committed.

We give that advice because, traditionally in Britain, lawyers whom families may go to are often only concerned with issues of compensation. We are concerned with issues of corporate criminal accountability.

We also undertake research into the role of the criminal justice system in the investigation, prosecuting and sentencing of companies and those who control them.

Finally we undertake some lobbying work. We try to lobby for appropriate changes to Law and practice in this area.

SWA: Is you lobbying receiving a sympathetic ear?

DB: There are two focuses of our lobbying. There’s the central Government and there is an organisation that is at arm’s length of the central Government, the Health and Safety Commission and Executive. Different departments of the central Government are responsible or different activities.

In Britain we lobby two Government departments. The Home Office is responsible for traditional criminal law and therefore the whole issue of the offence of manslaughter and how it applies to companies. The other department is Transport, Local Government and Regions which is responsible for general safety issues and has an oversight role of the Health and Safety Executive and Commission.

The Government has promised reform on the law of corporate manslaughter and on the sentencing of companies. In relationship to that we lobby the Home Office. It is difficult to say whether we are effective or not as the Government has committed themselves to making this change but it has been a long time coming and there is no Bill before Parliament and it clearly is not a priority of the Government which is why, of course, we need to lobby.

SAW: Sometimes there are activities in the justice system which can work counter to your lobbying or the will of the people. Have you seen evidence of that?

DB: The Courts can only apply the current Law as it stands. If you want change, this will come through changing the Law or changing the policy of the investigation and prosecution bodies to ensure that more cases come to the Courts. It is true to say that in terms of levels of fines there has been the traditional problem in ensuring that the Courts impose sufficiently appropriate fines commensurate to the offences committed when that offence has been committed by the company or individuals who control them. That would be the main criticism of the Courts, but beyond that the Courts can only apply the Common Law and also can only deal with cases that come before it.

So if there are deficiencies in the Law, that’s not the fault of the Courts, that’s the responsibility of the Government to change. And if there is a failure on the investigation or prosecution bodies to investigate appropriately or fail to prosecute particular companies or individuals; that is a failure on their part and that is where we need to change practice.

I wouldn’t saw that the Courts are a core part of the problem.

SAW: What has been the response to your lobbying from some of the employer and business representative organisations?

DB: We have been involved in establishing coalition campaigns on safety law and corporate accountability that bring together safety organisations, trade unions and families bereaved from work-related deaths. There are two core issues – the reform of the law of manslaughter and the enactment of this new offence of “corporate killing” as it is referred to in Britain, which the Government is committed to but to which no priority is being given.

Secondly there is the imposition of safety duties on company directors. At the moment under British Law, there are no clear safety duties imposed on company directors, safety obligations are placed on employers or manufacturers. Directors, as separate legal entities from the companies, have no clear legal obligation to ensure that the company complies with safety law.

The two groups mainly in opposition are the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Institute of Directors. There is recognition by industry that a new offence of corporate killing will be enacted and there is a sort-of acceptance. What they’re doing is lobbying to make it more difficult for companies to be convicted of the offence.

The Institute of Directors is lobbying against legal obligations on company directors. Although the Labour Government can well be said to be more interested in safety than a Conservative Government they do listen carefully to what industry says.

SAW: Recently the Australian Industry Group had some concerns with the Industrial Manslaughter Bill that is currently in the Victorian Parliament in Australia. One of their concerns is there needs to be an emphasis on education and not retribution. They don’t believe that such an Act will promote safety, it will only penalise

DB: Our response to that sort of argument is that, first of all, under current law companies escape any form of accountability, even for very serious failures on the company management’s part. Normally there is a situation of immunity and companies don’t get prosecuted for serious offences. That has two effects – a lack of moral justice and a sense from bereaved families and the community that there are some legal entities that are not accountable. There is a problem in the social fabric.

Secondly, if there is immunity under Common Law, and companies know that they can escape accountability, there is inevitably going to be a lack of deterrence in the system so that some companies will feel that we don’t need to change our safety management systems because it is unlikely that there is any serious impact if something goes wrong.

Companies, of all legal entities who get caught up in the criminal justice system, are rational beings. If there is a sense that there will be more cost for them by taking a particular action than if they don’t take a particular action, they won’t take that action. Individuals commit offences for all sorts of reasons which are irrational while corporations operate from a much more rational base. So they are much more likely to be deterred.

In our view, these changes are important for accountability issues which the argument that you mention does not deal with. They are also important for deterrence which links directly back to safety. That is not to say that, hand-in-hand with other approaches for change in criminal law, there ought not to be attempts to ensure that companies are able to comply with safety law so that offences aren’t committed.

SAW: The AI Group says that Government has failed to provide any evidence that such a law will reduce the level of workplace death and injury.

DB: If you look at any reform in Criminal Law, there is never any evidence to say that if we change the law in this particular way there will definitely be a reduction in the number of deaths, or whatever. The fact that you may reform the law of murder in one particular way doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a reduction in murders.

You ask industry to show in any research in relation to any other Criminal Law reform that says “we’re going to change the law because if the law is changed there is evidence to suggest that fewer offences will be committed or fewer deaths will take place.” It just doesn’t happen. That’s not the way that Criminal Law reform happens.

Criminal Law reform takes place because there is a perception of a lack of justice.

This argument doesn’t carry any weight because there is never any evidence that a particular legal reform is going to cause a particular change but what you can be sure of is that there will be greater accountability and you can speculate that there will be greater deterrence.

SAW: Some people assert that an Industrial Manslaughter offence will encourage a change in workplace culture.

DB: The thing about changing corporate culture is that you are more likely to change it when you change the Law. That’s the important effect that law reform has, it changes the perception about a particular conduct. I would argue that changing law would have an important effect upon the corporate culture. There is no question about that.

The problem with a lot of the corporate social responsibility arguments is that they are all about voluntary codes and about trying to get companies to do particular things. There will always be some good companies that will comply with them. Compliance with those codes doesn’t get to the companies who will commit offences anyway.

SAW: The UK has had some high profile cases that generate discussion on corporate manslaughter. We have covered some of those in the last few years. But one that seems not to be going away is some of the issues associated with Railtrack, the privatised rail transport company, after some very public fatalities and incidents. Are they incorporating accountability into their new organisational structures?

DB: Clearly, after the Paddington disaster and others, rail safety became a priority in this country. I would say that this was a very good thing but it also subsumed attention to other industries where there is a far higher level of death and injury, like the construction and manufacturing industries.

Those disasters were partly responsible for increasing the debate on the need for a new offence on corporate killing, for Directors’ safety duties and also, the reason why the Government decided to take Railtrack out of private ownership.

Families of victims from the Paddington disaster are still pushing for the application of corporate manslaughter against Railtrack. The Crown Prosecutor initially refused to prosecute for manslaughter however the families have got the Crown Prosecutor to reconsider that decision.

SAW: Have you had any interest in the moves on corporate killing from outside Britain?

DB: Australia is the one country where it has been addressed. Canada has put in some important reforms in this area recently.

If there is reform in the area of corporate killing in the next few years, there might be an impact on other jurisdictions.

Kevin Jones

This interview appeared originally in Safety At Work magazine Vol. 3 Issue 14 on 30 April 2002.  It remains Copyright – Workplace Safety Services P/L

New research on casino worker risks from secondhand smoke Reply

The yet-to-be-released August 2009 edition of the American Journal of Public Health has an interesting report into the health risks of casino workers in Pennsylvania from second hand tobacco smoke.  The research report is quite complex for the casual readerr but the increased level of risk to casino workers seems convincing.

According to the report, secondhand smoke

“in Pennsylvania casinos produces an estimated excess mortality of approximately 6 deaths per year per 10000 workers at risk”.

People in the casinos for 8 hours would be breathing air that would match the “unhealthy air” definition of the US Air Quality Index.

The reseacrh concludes

“It is clear, however, that Pennsylvania casino workers and patrons are put at significant excess risk of heart disease and lung cancer from SHS through a failure to include casinos in the state’s smoke-free-workplace law.”

Randy Dotinga wrote for the Health Behavior News Services on the research report and asked questions of a gambling industry representative:

“Holly Thomsen, a spokesperson for the American Gaming Association, a trade group for the casino industry, said its members are committed to “the highest level of safety and comfort” inside casinos.

Casinos serve both smoking and nonsmoking customers, she said, and “we realize that balancing the needs of these two distinct sets of patrons, as well as those of our employees who don’t smoke, is of paramount importance.”

The AJPH article reference is

Repace, J. Secondhand smoke in Pennsylvania casinos: A study of nonsmokers’ exposure, dose, and risk. Am J Public Health 99(8), 2009.

Kevin Jones

Sleep disorders and workplace safety – new research grant 1

Recently, the Australian Government awarded some research grants of which at least one is relevant to workplace safety.  $2.5 million was given for the establishment of a Centre for Clinical Research Excellence in Interdisciplinary Sleep Health (CRISH).

When the grant was announced Professor Ron Grunstein of the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research said,

“Adequate sleep is as important as exercise and diet. Sleep loss and sleep disorders contribute to mortality, chronic disease, mental health problems and the economic health burden.

“This funding will allow us to establish a network of leading sleep researchers and physicians in different specialties to investigate the biology of sleep, and look at ways to prevent and treat sleep disorders.”

Amongst several social benefits of the research, the issue of shiftwork health was mentioned.  There are many contributory factors to the health of shiftworker and sleep disorders is only one, but an important one.

WakeUpAustralia-CoverThe most recent Australian data on the costs of sleep disorders was from 2004 by Access Economics, an organisation that the government often relies on for data.  Its report, Wake Up Australia, estimates that  sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia underlie 9.1 per cent of work related injuries.

The origin of this statistic needs to be closely examined in the body of the report (page 23) as there is quite a bit of statistical magic applied however the 9.1% figure has been referred to in relation to the potential benefit of the CRISH project.  The statistic is not invalid but it is also not so simple.

Kevin Jones

Peanut allergy fatality saga to continue 3

Safety management in the education sector seems to be one of the hardest management challenges.  There are overlapping safety obligations through OHS legislation, education department guidelines, public health matters and meeting the demands of parents and students.

700 Peanuts - Federal Court coverA decision in the Federal Court of Australia on 30 June 2009 illustrates the challenges.

A 13 year old boy from Scotch College, in Melbourne, Nathan Francis, died after eating from a ration pack of beef satay on a Defence Forces camp.  The school, which was supervising the camp, were aware of the boy’s severe allergy to peanuts.

The Australian Department of Defence was fined over $A200,000.

The full judgement of the court raises several  issues that are relevant to the management of safety of people in one’s care.  The judge has recommended a State coronial inquest to determine the roles and responsibilities of Scotch College in Nathan’s death.

Justice for Nathan and his family is likely to have many more months to go. [ SafetyAtWorkBlog will follow the issue.]

A fantastic audio report on the decision is available at the ABC website. The payment of the fine back to the government is not dealt with in this blog.

The first section of the judgement (below) indicates what the judge believes are the failures that need to be addressed through an appropriate safety process:

  • Communication;
  • Instruction;
  • Provision of appropriate supplies;
  • The importance of labelling; and
  • Following procedures and guidelines

Some readers may find that this prosecution could make an interesting case study for safety management.

Kevin Jones

Justice North found that the Federal OHS Act was breached by the Commonwealth government through the Chief of Army.  The respondent

(a) supplied Cadet Nathan Fazal Francis, Cadet Nivae Anandaganeshan and Cadet Gene van den Broek with one-man combat ration packs (CRP’s) containing a satay beef food pouch which contained peanuts or peanut protein for their consumption despite having been informed that the said cadets were allergic to peanuts;
and, in so doing, it failed to:

(b) warn parents of the [Australian Army Cadets] AAC cadets about the contents of the CRP’s;

(c) warn AAC cadets about the contents of CRP’s;

(d) warn AAC cadets with pre-existing food allergies of the contents of CRP’s;

(e) make appropriate use of information provided by AAC cadets and parents of AAC cadets regarding pre-existing or known allergic conditions and correlate that information with the potential risk of being exposed to allergies through the supply of food contained in CRP’s;

(f) ensure that the contents of CRP’s allocated to AAC cadets did not include food products or allergens that may have triggered allergic responses by removing or requiring the removal of peanut-based food products from CRP’s;

(g) prevent distribution or provision of peanut-based food products to AAC cadets with pre-existing allergic reactions by:

i. inspecting the contents of CRP’s to be allocated to those individual AAC cadets who had given notice of allergic conditions;

ii. isolating cadets with pre-existing medical conditions and/or notified food allergies at the time of distribution of CRP’s and issuing them with CRP’s that did not contain peanut products or other food allergens;

iii. removing all CRP’s known to contain peanut protein or other food allergens from circulation amongst AAC cadets;

iv. requiring all AAC cadets with notified allergic conditions to provide their own food supplies;

(h) issue any or any adequate instructions or provide adequate supervision regarding distribution of CRP’s;

(i) issue any adequate instructions or provide adequate supervision regarding consumption of contents of CRP’s;

(j) prevent the consumption of CRP’s containing food allergens by AAC cadets with food allergies;

(k) distribute CRP’s after consulting or considering pre-existing medical conditions; and

(l) take into consideration the findings of a report dated 22 November 1996 by the Australian National Audit Office entitled ‘Management of Food Provisioning in the Australian Defence Force’.

Cheeky workers compensation premium statistic 1

“The premium has dropped eight per cent from last financial year. This is the third consecutive drop in the Commonwealth sector premium rate.” [my emphasis]

Fantastic news – eight per cent reduction in 12 months!  The media release goes on:

“… this is a very pleasing result for Commonwealth agencies as it indicates injuries are continuing to fall due to effective prevention strategies that promote safer workplaces.”

The second quote is from Martin Dolan, CEO of Comcare in Australia, on his second-last day in the job.

But 8%? In one year?

The Comcare media release includes a table of premium figures for the five years.  The overall premium rate in 2008-09 was 1.36%.  For 2009-10 it will be 1.25%, that’s the 8% fall in Comcare media release terms.  In reality it is a fall of 0.11%

The premium rate is indeed low and it may be justified in congratulating Comcare on a job well done but expressing such a fall as  8%?  This is a cheeky farewell statistic for a CEO which should have said

“a 0.11% fall from 2008-09 and a decline of 0.5% over 4 years”.

This is surely a fairer statistic and a worthy achievement in itself, if not quite so sexy.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE: 1 July 2009

Martin Dolan is moving to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

Union abuse of workplace safety Reply

The fragility of Australia’s agreement for OHS harmonisation is illustrated in an article by Michael Stutchbury of The Australian.  He  mentions the potential domino effect resulting from the West Australian Treasurer’s desire to keep his options open.  New South Wales and Queensland see that a (politically unpalatable) out is possible.

Pages from Open_Ltr_to_Premiers_and_Chief_Ministers_re_OHS_harmonisation_14.5.2009The freshest information in his article was that the CEO of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), Katie Lahey, has described OHS harmonisation as “linchpin” in the government’s push for a seamless national business economy, according to Stutchbury.  This perspective is one that should be watched closely as the BCA is not renowned for its OHS innovation or advice.

Stutchbury misinterprets the pledge by the Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU)

“to make safety the key to their battle against the ABCC’s powers”.

The union is applying safety to their industrial relations battle with the ABCC because their initial attack failed.  The Government has watered down the ABCC’s powers but the ABCC will continue to exist.  Indeed the “lawlessness” of the unions has caused the Government to continue with regulatory oversight of the construction industry beyond the ABCC.  The unions are flogging a dead horse (albeit for excellent ideological reasons) and, as a result, are reinforcing the political and community perspectives of union “thuggery”.

The ABCC action against unions has not been on the basis of health and safety, as far as SafetyAtWorkBlog is aware.  It has been on the issue of union conduct, the way the union progresses on OHS matters.  The ABCC concerns stem from the process itself and not the origin of the process.

The Australian union movement needs to realise that it is its heavy-handedness on industrial relations that is impeding its progress on several fronts.  It is not getting the ear of what traditionally has been a sympathetic political party and it is failing to gain any ground in the community because of its brash conduct.  As a result it is not attracting new members.

It is also disappointing that health and safety is trotted out as a Plan B.  This has happened repeatedly and has resulted in the tactic being seen as minimally effective.  The union movement needs to see that OHS is a core value of union membership.  Workers can be confident that an OHS issue brought to management with the union’s support will get an audience, and is more likely to get fixed.

The unions will gain new members by emphasising the positive and direct benefits of union membership.  A possible campaign start could be

“You will be safer at work with a union”.

There is a place for ideological protest.  The point needs to be made that the powers of ABCC are inappropriate.  But the ABCC was introduced in response to union arrogance and excessive testosterone.  A change of culture in the union movement some time ago would have allowed it to focus on the future of its members rather than continue with its outdated and unpopular belligerence.

Kevin Jones

Varanus Island is back to normal Reply

According to various Australian media reports, the natural gas plant at Varanus Island in Western Australia is now back to full capacity following the major pipeline explosion in 2008.

The government has estimated that the explosion blasted $A2 billion from the state economy and will be pursuing the pipeline’s owner, Apache Energy, through the courts.

The government says the pipeline was inadequately maintained and corrosion led to the failure of the pipe.

Apache has already been in the courts seeking an injunction to stop the Western Australian Mines & Petroleum Minister, Norman Moore, from seeing a “a federal-state government report into alleged regulatory lapses that may have contributed to the Varanus Island blast”.

Apache’s move is peculiar but the WA government has become more involved in the investigation of this explosion than others and the company has not been happy with the investigation process for some time.

Kevin Jones

Latest guidance on working alone 1

Western Australia’s WorkSafe has just released its latest guidance on working alone and it is the most practical look at the hazard from any OHS regulator in Australia.Working_alone cover

Importantly, it differentiates between “alone” and “remote”.  In 1995, when the Victorian First Aid Code of Practice raised the issue of isolation, there was considerable confusion.  How can someone in the metropolitan area be isolated or remote?

  • Undertaking an assessment of first aid needs of a multi-storey building which has cleaners or nightshift working at 2am.
  • Working alone in a petrol station in an outer suburb.
  • (Sadly) showing a potential client a new property in a new real estate development on the fringes of the city.
  • Security guard walking the perimeter of an industrial site
  • Delivering pizzas at 3am
  • Home visits from medical specialists

The WA definition of “alone” is very useful and needs to be kept front-of-mind in OHS policy and procedure production.  It could be used in the review process of existing policies and prores to ensure their applicability.

“A person is alone at work when they are on their own, when they cannot be seen or heard by another person, and when they cannot expect a visit from another worker or member of the public for some time.”

The working alone guidance identifies four industry types that require special support for working alone:

  • Agriculture
  • Pastoral
  • Forestry
  • Mining

Although SafetyAtWorkBlog advocates low-tech control options as much as possible (usually because of increased reliability) thankfully this guidance discusses mobile phones, satellite communications, GPS locators and other communications devices.

Kevin Jones

When employees are their worst enemy. Reply

A recent article in a rehabilitation newsletter reminded me of a client from several years ago.

Several employees in a small item packaging line were reporting wrist and forearm soreness toward the end of their shift.  They believed that the line speed was too fast for them to comfortably work their full shift.

In consultation with the workers and the operations manager we went through various possible control options – line speed, automation, seating, posture, warm-up exercise, footwear, length of shift…..

A couple of days later, I was at the workplace at the end of the shift.  The employees said they were sore but they did not go home.  They stayed on for several hours of overtime.  When I asked them about this they said they always do the overtime.

So the assessment of working environment had incomplete data.

My advice was that if the employees were putting themselves at harm of the potential for harm, undertaking overtime while not fit-for-work contravenes their own OHS obligations.  If the employer offered these employees overtime knowing the employees were in pain, the employer is breaching the OHS obligation.

That is the straight OHS position.  But life is more complex than OHS.  The right OHS decision deprives the employees of additional income.  The right OHS decision could encourage employees to not report their pain or discomfort, for if they do, the offer of overtime would be withdrawn.  Non-reporting of injuries is a common short-term decision that many employees make.

It is in this context that consultation is required between employees, production manager, supervisor, human resources officer, and the health & safety rep, if one is on site.  This consultative group can then make a decision that everyone understands the justification for, even if some participants do not like it.

A question to ponder from the scenario above – if one of the workers developed pain during the normal work shift, undertook overtime without the employer being informed of the pain and put in a worker’s compensation claim for the pain, would the employer feel justified in contesting the claim?

Kevin Jones

OHS crime alert 2

Media     -0x1.8b5ce0p-63lert-            52392336nal[1] - crimeIn late June 2009, WorkSafe Victoria tried a new approach to raising the awareness of the criminal status of OHS breaches through producing a formatted media alert and placing an ad in the daily newspapers.

It is unclear how else the “flyer” will be distributed other than through the WorkSafe website.  Indications are that a hard copy of the alert for distribution through WorkSafe offices is not planned.

The ad, pictured right, refers to the prosecution of Rapid Roller over the second serious lathe incident at that workplace in 12 months, the most recent resulting in a death.

Kevin Jones