Lessons for many in the prosecution of Pipecon

The prosecution of Pipecon over two of its workers who died in a trench collapse in March 2018 has opened in Ballarat’s County Court this week. Day one of the plea hearing was reported in the local newspapers and provided details of the circumstances of the events leading up to the deaths of Charlie Howkins and Jack Brownlee.

The investigation of Pipecon generated great bitterness in Ballarat and not only for the Howkins and Brownlee families. There were strong rumours that Pipecon would plead not guilty and argue that their workers were responsible for the trench collapse. Understandably people were angry that the responsibility for the worksite would be transferred to the dead workers.

Several weeks ago, the Court heard that Pipecon would plead guilty to breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act. Those alleged breaches are being presented in the current plea hearing. As the case is being heard in the County Court, in time, additional details of the findings of the Court will be publicly released, as opposed to cases heard in the Magistrates’ Court.

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Save lives or save money – the OHS tension

There are two core elements to the work of the occupational health and safety (OHS) professional – the management of Safety and the management of Safety Liability. In the simplest of terms, the former saves lives and the latter saves money. OHS (and politics) has always involved juggling these two extremes.

There are many examples of this tension but the most obvious, at the moment, is COVID-19 and the vaccination of workers.

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Why would you NOT make COVID vaccinations mandatory?

Now that Australia is vaccinating its people at a reasonable rate from a very slow start, the issue of mandatory vaccinations for workers has reappeared. Several months ago the issue was more hypothetical but evidence has appeared from England, the United States and Israel about vaccination rates and the resumption of business and work. Australian businesses need to reach a clear position on vaccinations and the return of employees to workplaces, and this will require an assessment of the ethics applied by employers.

The occupational health and safety (OHS) position is remarkably clear but is not really being heard or promoted.

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Why have Australian workplaces become safer?

The number of work-related fatalities in Australia is declining. Plenty are claiming credit for this, but no one knows for sure which prevention strategies have been successful over the last twenty-odd years and/or to what degree. Australia’s recent Intergenerational Report may offer some clues to the reasons for this decline in traumatic workplace deaths and a way forward. This article dips into the 200-page report.

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Business should stop complaining about paying for mental health. It’ll boost the bottom line.

[Article reprinted, with permission, from the May 24 edition of Crikey newsletter]

Luke Slawomirski

During the 2020 lockdowns, the business lobby showed a surprising concern for Victorians’ mental health: lockdowns were bad because they’d cause a spike in mental illness and suicides far worse than the COVID-19 cases and deaths they’d prevent.

The suicide spike never happened. What did happen was much-needed additional funding for mental health — $3.8 billion over four years — announced in the 2021-22 state budget on Thursday.

But the way business reacted suggests its interest in mental health has waned.

You see, the measures aimed at better prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental ill health will be funded by a levy: 0.5% for businesses with payrolls above $10 million and 1% for those above $100 million. Critics, including the federal treasurer, claim this will cruel “job creation and confidence“.

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Cause is not the same as Correlation

Politicians and executives love to claim a cause when there is only a correlation. This was displayed recently in Australian Senate Hearings on the issue of occupational health and safety (OHS) and Industrial Manslaughter (IM).

Wiktionary defines Cause as:

The source of, or reason for, an event or action; that which produces or effects a result.

And Correlation as

A reciprocal, parallel or complementary relationship between two or more comparable objects.

The conflation of these two very different relations has been a serious drag on OHS progress in practice and policy.

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Industrial Manslaughter or Category 1. Which prevents harm more effectively?

The Communique issued after the May 20, 2021 meeting of the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Ministers says that Australia is not likely to apply an Industrial Manslaughter law nationally:

“While the Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria provided their support for an industrial manslaughter offence, the recommendation did not receive the required majority.”

Some people think that this is no real failure as the Communique also includes “defacto ‘industrial manslaughter’ laws”. Here is the quote that supports that position:

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