Victims of industrial crime

On May 13 2019 the Australian media published articles based on research (released after embargo) conducted by the RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice and about victims of crime which those advocating for Industrial Manslaughter laws should seriously consider.

The Age newspaper reports

“Victims of crime felt let down by the system when offenders pleaded guilty to a less serious charge and did not proceed to trial ‘‘ because they wanted the opportunity to tell their story’’ , …..”

and that

“One victim interviewed during the research said they felt left out of discussions with the OPP when charges in their case were downgraded from murder to manslaughter for a plea of guilt …”

Occupational health and safety (OHS) seems a little ahead of the game here as relatives of deceased workers have been integrated into OHS consultation in both Queensland and Victoria. Relatives had a very strong voice through the Senate Inquiry into Industrial Deaths. Victim Impact Statements have been possible in the Courts for many years but Industrial Manslaughter laws add an additional depth to the participation of victims of industrial crime, and an additional risk of false promises.

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The politics of safety

Bill Shorten third from the right at the 2012 Safe Work Australia awards in Parliament House Canberra

There is little doubt that Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, believes that occupational health and safety (OHS) is important. His interest was on show, perhaps most significantly, during his time as a union leader at the Beaconsfield mine disaster but he has spoken at various OHS awards, the opening of the National Workers Memorial, local memorials, and was a participant in the Maxwell Review of Victoria’s OHS review in 2006.

OHS has not appeared yet in the current Federal Election campaign. It rarely does. But there is an opportunity to argue that the Australian Labor Party (ALP), of which Shorten is the leader, will not only create more jobs for Australian but that they will be safe jobs. To an OHS professional, it seems to be a simple position, a position that is extremely difficult to argue against. However, the politics of safety in Australia cannot be separated from the role and activities of the trade union movement. Yet, OHS is not just a union challenge, it is relevant to all workers and their families, but only the trade unions seem to have an OHS voice. Letting this situation continue is not sustainable.

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New film provides an update on legal action over the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire

An independently-produced documentary, Our Power, about the Hazelwood mine fire had its Victorian premiere on March 2 2019. The Hazelwood coal mine fire was a major workplace disaster than generated substantial public health damage in the neighbour communities in the Latrobe Valley. An early record of the event and its impacts can be found in Tom Doig‘s book The Coal Face.

The documentary provides unique vision of the fire and how it burned and polluted the neighbourhood for over a month in 2014. As time goes on, the fire is seen more as an environmental disaster as it is workplace incident and speakers in Our Power are certainly confident in linking the fire with the privatisation of State-owned assets and the social injustice that underpins neoliberalism.

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More than warm lettuce needed on Industrial Manslaughter laws

Applying the most effective way to have companies comply with their occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations has been debated in Australia and elsewhere for years.  The issue will arise again in 2019 and in relation Industrial Manslaughter laws as Australian States have elections, or the political climate suits.

There are several elements to the argument put by those in favour of Industrial Manslaughter laws. Workers are still being killed so the deterrence of existing OHS laws has seen to have failed.  Deterrence has been based on financial penalties and workers are still being killed so financial penalties have failed. Jail time is the only option left.

This is a simplistic depiction of the argument, but it is not dissimilar to some of the public arguments. The reality is that deterrence is achieved in two ways – telling the person of the consequences of an action and enforcing those consequences.

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Is workplace health and safety still relevant?

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A quiet revolution is happening in workplace health and safety in Australia.  I don’t mean the laws – that boat sailed with the failure of the attempt to harmonise laws and tweak them for the new Century.  The change is coming from a realisation that what is still mostly called Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) has been misunderstood and misapplied, especially in the context of work-related psychological hazards.

OHS emerged in its most contemporary form in the 1970s in the UK and manifested in new laws in Australian States in the 1980s.  These laws stipulated that the primary duty of care for the health and safety of workers AND those affected by the work processes suits with the employers (ignore the absurd modern variation of employer in the Work Health and Safety laws – the PCBU – Persons Conducting Business or Undertaking as only lawyers really use the term.  Some prominent lawyers pronounced the acronym as “Peek-A-Boo” (you know who you are) as if OHS was a barely-held-together nightie! It was juvenile and didn’t help).  Workers have a duty to not harm themselves or others and to support the employer’s OHS processes.

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