So, Victoria now has Industrial Manslaughter laws. Now what? Within days of the activation of these laws a worker died at the Thales worksite in Bendigo. This location is covered by the Federal Work Health and Safety laws, but this has not stopped social media from mentioning Industrial Manslaughter. It seems now that every work-related death will be assessed through the IM lens. It may be that the threat of jail should always have been the starting point for occupational health and safety (OHS) penalties and investigations but initial responses to the IM laws have been mixed, and some seem to be more interested in what, in the past, has been a sideline to the IM discussion – deaths, in work vehicles, suicides and industrial illness.
The Australian Institute of Safety and Health’s online national conference offered some big topics this year. One of the most anticipated was the discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace. Luckily the panel discussion included big hitters such as Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins whose week was about to get a lot busier with the revelations of sexual harassment by Australia’s High Court Justice Dyson Heydon.
The Dyson Heydon sexual harassment accusations, which he emphatically denies, were revealed in an independent investigation for the High Court of Australia. The Justice Heydon case has generated copious media attention for many reasons including his prominence in a politically-charged Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. His sexual harassment offences are awful, but the most startling revelations are not necessarily about one man’s inappropriate actions. Here was an organisational, maybe even a professional, culture that permitted this behaviour to continue unchallenged for many many years. It is this context that, I believe, offers the most significant lessons for the occupational health and safety (OHS) profession and where OHS skills can help others.
One of the major criticisms of Industrial Manslaughter laws by this blog is that the laws are likely to be a distraction from actions and changes that could prevent deaths. In 2018, the Australian Parliament conducted an inquiry into industrial deaths within which the prevention of death and injury was core. The recommendations of the inquiry’s final report – “They never came home—the framework surrounding the prevention, investigation and prosecution of industrial deaths in Australia” – have never really been acted upon, a fact mentioned in Australia’s Senate on June 11, 2020.
The end of the Court action* over the death of Barry Willis while he was working for Brisbane Auto Recycling (BAR) allows for various occupational health and safety (OHS) issues to be discussed, but a lot of the online discussion immediately after the sentencing on June 11 2020 was half-cocked and sometimes included a racist undertone. Both these elements deserve expansion.
A lot of occupational health and safety (OHS) people, including lawyers, were watching the court case involving Brisbane Auto Recycling (BAR) for the Industrial Manslaughter sentence, but there is a more important, practical lesson from this case involving forklifts and the positive duty of care.
One Queensland newspaper reported on June 11. 2020 stated that the BAR has been fined $3 million and the two company directors, both in their twenties, received 10 months imprisonment, wholly suspended. (The judgement is not publicly available at the time of writing)
According to the prosecution case the incident involved
“….. a worker engaged by BAR … was struck by a forklift which was being reversed by another BAR worker…”
“BAR had effectively no safety systems in place. It has no system to ensure the separation of pedestrians and forklifts, which were commonly in the same work areas, and it had no system to ensure that the workers who drove forklifts were appropriately qualified and supervised. It is principally through those failures that BAR caused the death of Mr Willis.”