Workplace Safety and Industrial Manslaughter CEO Report

  • Date:01 Feb 2005
  • Type:CompanyDirectorMagazine
A spate of legislation on occupational health and safety has come up recently in the parliaments of the states and territories. New and draconian criminal penalties, including jail terms, are proposed for managers and even directors when an accident happens.

Workplace Safety and 'Industrial Manslaughter'

A spate of legislation on occupational health and safety has come up recently in the parliaments of the states and territories. New and draconian criminal penalties, including jail terms, are proposed for managers and even directors when an accident happens.

ACT and Victoria have passed new laws, NSW has a particularly severe one under discussion and other states may follow. You might even think there is a competition afoot among these governments to find new and harsh ways to penalise companies.

Locking up bosses is not the way to promote workplace safety.

Ask anyone who knows about safety, from workers' compensation insurers to people in inherently risky industries like airlines, steel, power or oil and gas and they will tell you the answer lies in developing a culture of safety.

This means being fastidious about analysing risks and the causes of accidents if they do occur. It means lots of training. It means being strict about wearing the safety gear and about safe working procedures, from not lifting heavy things in offices to making sure a fuel tank is earthed.

AICD wants to see the safest possible workplaces in Australia. It has no argument with prosecutions where a company's management knows there are risks and fails to deal with them. But it does argue with these new laws.

Safety experts will tell you that even the best run businesses can have accidents on rare occasions, through unforeseen combinations of events and errors.

It makes no sense, as proposed in the NSW Bill, to presume that the company is at fault whenever a major accident occurs and for them to be obliged to prove their innocence. Moreover, this is a travesty of a vital principle, at the heart of the criminal law for centuries, that one is innocent unless proven guilty.

OH&S laws should promote the processes by which companies instil a safety culture. If a company is conscientious about managing safety, it should not be penalised if an accident occurs. No good company wants to let even one unnecessary accident happen.

To hold non-executive directors accountable for such things is unreasonable, unless it can be shown that they themselves have failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of their company's workplaces.

These new Bills have not attracted the attention they have deserved. AICD will be watching future developments closely in all sates and territories. If it sees unreasonable measures proposed that may affect directors, it will do its best to lobby for something better. It may join in coalitions with other parties to do so. AICD's councils across Australia will be very much involved.

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