Death at work and work-related death

People die every day.  Some die in their sleep in bed, some collapse in the street, some suicide at a place of their choosing, others die at work.  But for those who die at work there is an important differentiation between dying at work and dying from work.

The differentiation can be fairly simple to determine but can be muddied by workplace politics.  For instance, the South Australian desalination project (video report available) has had one work-related fatality but there have been at least three deaths on-site.  Determining what is work-related is important for safety managers as this affects the way an incident is investigated, the resources allocated to the investigation and the level of emphasis placed on prevention.

All deaths at work need to be reported to the OHS regulators because, although the person may not have been an employee, the work environment may have contributed to the death.  This may relate to security measures at the site.  It may relate to how a customer has been managed in a retail or social service facility.  It may relate to the presence of physical hazards in a workplace that good housekeeping would usually control.

What a death at work should not do is generate a response like “He died of a heart attack, so it’s not our concern”.  At the very least there will be secondary impacts from the death for the workers who witnessed the incident or who may have applied first aid, perhaps for the first time for real.

A shooting range in Adelaide had two suicides on site in October 2008,  neither person worked at the shooting range but media reports of the coronial inquest have indicated that at least one of the victims was “having trouble at work”.  It is a fair assumption that the shooting range personnel will be emotionally affected by these incidents in their workplace.  The challenge of managing this type of hazard is high indeed.

Many worksites have incidents because there are insufficient safety resources available from the commencement (some would say from the design stage) of a project.  Others because the level of enforcement of safety laws and corporate OHS policies is insufficient.  Few worksites know nothing about safety but many are unsure of how to apply safe work practices in their own circumstances.

Workplaces and business people do not need leadership to achieve an appropriate level of safety.  Commercial leadership advice rarely results in safety improvements.  What is needed is guidance and guidance that relates to the site specifically, or the type of business activity.  We need to talk.  We need to ask.  We need to listen and we need to learn.

But we also should not panic.

People die every day.  Some die in their sleep in bed, some collapse in the street, some suicide at a place of their choosing, others die at work.  The safety professionals’ job is to prevent what can be prevented and to provide assistance in those circumstances that are beyond the direct control of the work site.  But above all,  the professional’s job is to learn and to share that knowledge so that injuries and harm can be prevented.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

5 thoughts on “Death at work and work-related death”

  1. Thank you Tony, sadly I feel that for the most part the people who make the rules have their hearing aids turned down or off.

  2. Every building site has built into the tender process x number of small/medium/large/fatal incidents. The builder knows what the likely fine will be should there be an industrial death, every builder knows that lawyers can and do spin to avoid the building company from being found responsible for a industrial death.

    It is my view that until there is real penalty (I am not an advocate for industrial manslaughter) when the company is found by the industrial Courts to have caused or contributed to a death and the fine is to be paid in full to the deceased family -not into government coffers as it is now- , and if there are minor children that there be a trust found set up for the children until they reach the age of 21 with a set amount paid each year by the company into the trust found. Until then there will be no reduction in workplace incidents that result in workers being harmed or killed.

    I have yet to meet anyone who can say that they went to work and volunteered to have a life changing injury or have a workmate die in their arms.
    I know the day of my own injury it was a normal early winter\’s day, the only thoughts in my mind was my eldest son\’s birthday, I had no idea that my life was about to be turned upside down by a very preventable incident.

    Put the penalty\’s in place as they should be, no longer allow plea bargains of good behaviour, and require the companies to publish just how many workplace injuries and workplace deaths the tender process has covered.

    Then it would be interesting to see just how many companies would go out of business simply because no worker would want to end up as a computer generated WorkCover number or a body in the morgue with a cardboard tag on their big toe.

  3. When safety professionals are seen as real contributors to the bottom line and this will take significant leadership from the promoters of workplace safety, then we may see enthusiastic compliance by employers and employees rather than the hit and miss, get away with the minimum attitude that seems to be the norm today.

  4. Previous incidents on this site; a safety culture amongst many contractor groups on site; unrealstic deadlines imposed by the client – the SA ALP government – ; the practice of using soft slings for these types of lifts (and the question of why this method was encouraged by site management); and the sheer futility and undesirability of a desal plant as a means of dealing with water security issues in the SA context – none of these issues were addressed in this report.

    The SA government and the site managers still have many questions still to answer.

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