OHS subtext in Industrial Manslaughter discussions

Senator Deborah O’Neill continued her attack on Australia’s Liberal/National party government in Senate Estimates hearing last week.

With the Work Health and Safety (WHS) ministers split on the introduction of an Industrial Manslaughter (IM) offence in the Model WHS laws, Senator Michaelia Cash, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and chair of that WHS meeting, could have voted in favour of these IM changes but declined. O’Neill saw this as a political weakness and challenged Senator Cash to justify her decision. The justifications, with a hint of arse-covering, were morally weak but legally sufficient. At one point, Senator Cash said:

“… a fundamental principle of work health and safety regulation in Australia, as you would be aware, is that liability should focus on risk, not outcome, because the evidence shows that when you focus on risk, as opposed to outcome—and the outcome that you are referring to here is a terrible outcome: a death in a workplace—it’s been proven to actually improve health and safety in workplaces.”

Hansard, June 2, 2021, page 8
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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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Industrial Manslaughter presents an empty hook

New South Wales’ Opposition Minister for Industrial Relations, Adam Searle, spoke recently in support of the introduction of Industrial Manslaughter (IM) laws. In Parliament on May 5 2021, he said

“… legislation is required to enable the prosecution of industrial manslaughter and to fundamentally change the approach across industry in order to raise the standard and embed a culture of workplace safety of a much higher and more stringent nature. We need a culture that supports workplace safety in our State, not a culture, as I indicated before, that allows and encourages the cutting of corners and the fostering of unsafe workplaces…..

page 43, Hansard,

Legislation can achieve many things but not by itself, and that reality often makes such penalties like Industrial Manslaughter little more than symbolic.

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New workplace mental health info but no new strategy

On May 20, 2021, Australia’s Work Health and Safety (WHS) Ministers to discuss a range of occupational health and safety (OHS) matters. One matter will be the inclusion of a specific requirement on employers that, according to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU):

“…. would finally require employers to identify and address risks to mental health, in the same way, they are required to with risks to physical health.”

What the ACTU fails to make clear is why this regulatory change is required when the duty to provide a physically and psychologically safe and healthy workplace already exists in the current OHS/WHS laws in Australia.

The ACTU does, however, with the help of the Australia Institute and Centre for Future Work, provide more data on work-related mental health. The union movement is one of the few voices that acknowledge the structural elements of OHS but fails to consider any options other than regulation and, with a federal conservative government in power, it is unlikely to receive an attentive audience.

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OHS needs to get a seat at the ESG table

There has always been an overlap between environmental safety and occupational health and safety (OHS). This has happened not because of any particular similarity between the two disciplines but rather because of company executives’ duties, responsibilities, and accountabilities.

A recent report produced through the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) says this about climate change responses:

“Care needs to be taken to ensure that climate-related targets and analysis are rigorous, underpinned by appropriate governance, strategy and action, reflected in financial statements as required.”

Replace “climate” with “OHS”, and the overlap is clear. This is particularly important at this time when Australia is preparing its next national OHS strategy.

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