Restorative Justice and workplace fatalities – Part 1

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The city in which SafetyAtWorkBlog is edited, Melbourne, is struggling to manage a spate of street violence – some racially-based, a lot influenced by alcohol and drugs.  The Age newspaper carried a feature article on 25 August 2009 discussing the concept of “restorative justice”, a concept that is barely known outside of some legal or civil liberties areas, in relation to handling offenders and victims of street violence.

Pages from RJ_and_Work-Related_Death_Consultation_ReportOnly last week, there was an important launch of a research report into the application of restorative justice for those affected by workplace fatalities.  It is a fascinating new area of application for restorative justice in Australia and one that seems a more natural fit than for the more common acts of violence.

The research project builds on a lot of the work already undertaken into workplace fatalities by the Creative Ministries Network. Their research, mentioned in the project report, has shown

“…that families and company directors, managers and workers grieving a traumatic death suffer more prolonged and complicated grief due to delays in legal proceedings, public disclosure of personal information, lack of information, and increased stress from involvement in the prosecution process and coronial and other litigated processes.”

Over the next few days SafetyAtWorkBlog will run a series of articles on the concept and its application as well as being able to make available copies of the research reports and transcripts of interviews with research participants.

As SafetyAtWorkBlog has no legal expertise restorative justice needed some investigation.  Below are some useful definitions and descriptions:

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that relies on reconciliation rather than punishment. The theory relies on the idea that a well-functioning society operates with a balance of rights and responsibilities. When an incident occurs which upsets that balance, methods must be found to restore the balance, so that members of the community, the victim, and offender, can come to terms with the incident and carry on with their lives.”

Restorative justice brings victims, offenders and communities together to decide on a response to a particular crime. It’s about putting victims’ needs at the centre of the criminal justice system and finding positive solutions to crime by encouraging offenders to face up to their actions.”

“The term “restorative justice” is often used to describe many different practices that occur at various stages of the criminal justice system including:

  • Diversion from court prosecution (i.e. to a separate process for determining justice);
  • Actions taken in parallel with court decisions (e.g. referral to health, education and employment assessment, etc.); and
  • Meetings between victims and offenders at any stage of the criminal process (e.g. arrest, pres-sentence and prison release.”

[Of course, one can also read the Wikipedia entry)

The intention of restorative justice has more often been to reduce the likelihood of a re-offence.  The application of restorative justice for workplace fatalities seems to be slightly different.  In America, it would be difficult to avoid using the word “closure” (a phrase SafetyAtWorkBlog refuses to use as there is never a close to grief, only a way of living with it) as one of the aims of the workplace fatality application.

There are many effects of a workplace fatality on executives and companies.  It is hard to imagine a company that, after one fatality, would not do all it could to avoid another.  Restorative justice has the potential to heal the surviving victims – family and company.  It can also reduce the animosity that often results from the traditional adversarial justice system, particularly for those participants who may not have been exposed to such processes before.

Kevin Jones

Buenos Aires Nightclub fire – Update

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According to a Reuters report available on-line on 20 August 2009:

“The former manager of a Buenos Aires nightclub has been sentenced to 20 years in jail over a fire that killed 194 people, the deadliest blaze in Argentine history.

The court’s decision at the end of a year-long trial was met with spontaneous outbursts of violence among relatives of the victims, with police using water cannons to disperse rioters.”

One of the most popular blog articles at SafetyAtWorkBlog over the last month – the Santika fire article – provides a useful contrast to the Buenos Aires prosecution and some practical risk control measures.

Kevin Jones

Handling trauma

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The Rural Health Education Foundation (RHEF) produced a DVD recently as part of its professional development program on managing trauma.  It is an introduction for rural medical practitioners on how to identify trauma and how to advise on management.  The video was produced in conjunction with the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health and is unavailable at the moment due to a lack of funding.  However, the video, and others, are available online through a free registration at the RHEF website.

Trauma DVD 002Health and safety practitioners rarely prepare themselves adequately for handling a traumatized worker whether it is from a work experience or an issue outside the workplace.  OHS practitioners often have a linear perspective where an incident occurs, the personal damage is handled or referred on and the avoidance of recurrence is prevented.

The cycle of incident, rehabilitation and reintegration to the workplace is not widely understood in the OHS field.  The “Recovery From Trauma: What Works” video illustrates the personal and psychological cost of an incident.  Through a case study it also shows the early signs of trauma, when a worker may “not be himself” – the clues to a possible bigger problem.  One case study, John, specifically includes the impact of his situation on his work performance.

In the early stages of trauma, around a week after an incident, the video advises that people avoid

  • Alcohol and drugs
  • Keeping overly busy
  • Involvement in stressful situations
  • Withdrawing
  • Stopping yourself doing things you enjoy
  • Taking risks

If the worker is out of sorts for longer than a week, professional assistance should be sought.

The video was broadcast in February 2009 so the information is current.

The program continues with issues of post-traumatic stress disorder with additional case studies including a policeman talking about his counseling and the therapy he undertook after a traumatic event.

RHEF does not try to do everything by itself and draws upon subject matter experts on trauma and recovery.  The video is a very professional production and RHEF should be supported in its initiatives.  Readers are encouraged to watch the videos online and, if you can, consider supporting RHEF financially so that these important resources can be made available to medical professionals throughout Australia.

Kevin Jones

River death leads to OHS prosecution

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The prosecution of a New Zealand adventure company, Black Sheep Adventures, over the death of Englishwoman Emily Jordan has received more press in England than in Australia but the case should be watched by all OHS professionals.

One report provides a useful summary of the fatal incident

“Emily Jordan drowned while riverboarding on the Kawarau river in New Zealand’s south island in April last year [2008].

The 21-year-old former Alice Ottley School (now RGSAO) pupil was travelling with her boyfriend after graduating from Swansea University with a first class degree in law.

The riverboarding company Black Sheep Adventures Ltd and its director Brad McLeod have been charged with failing to ensure the actions or inaction of employees did not harm Miss Jordan.”

The same article is an illustration of the importance of regular communication with the family of the deceased by the Authorities, even if the parties are on opposite sides of the globe.

The family established The Emily Jordan Foundation and a eulogy about Emily is available which provides a clearer understanding of what was lost in this tragedy.

Black Sheep Adventures have also been charged under the Health and Safety Employment Act 1992, with failing “failure to take all practical steps to ensure the safety of employees and the prevention of possible hazards.”  The company and its director have pleaded not guilty.

The Birmingham Post is continuing to cover the case including the start of the trial due for next week.

Maritime New Zealand who are prosecuting the company instigated a review of the river boarding industry in late 2008.

Kevin Jones

Firefighter trauma

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A major element of risk management  is business continuity.  This requires considerable planning, disaster recovery resources, and a long-term focus.

In early 2009 parts of Victoria, some not far from the offices of SafetyAtWorkBlog, were incinerated and across the State over 170 people died. In a conservative western culture like Australia, the bush-fires were the biggest natural disaster in living memory.

The is a Royal Commission into the Victorian Bushfires that is illustrating many of the disaster planning and community continuity needs in risk management.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “7.30 Report” provided a report on 5 August 2009 which originates from the views of the community and the volunteer firefighters.  One of the issues relevant to safety professionals and risk managers is the psychological impact on volunteer workers.  Many in the report talk of trauma.  Many in the disaster areas have not returned and their are many who remain psychologically harmed.

When a workforce is so closely integrated with a community, rehabilitation is a daunting task and changes a community forever.

Overseas readers may have experienced their own natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina, earthquakes, floods and wildfires.  Many of these stories are reported around the world.  In the recovery phase of any disaster, businesses need to rebuild but are often rebuilding with damaged people.  It would be heartening to see the OHS regulators and OHS professions becoming more involved over the long recovery period.

Kevin Jones