In the last decade, Australia made serious strides to update its occupational health and safety regulations to the modern era. A pillar concept propounded by the safety policy makers who crafted the subsequent model Work Health and Safety Act: that principal duty holders (or PCBUs) have the primary responsibility for the health and safety of their workers and any other workers under their influence (e.g. contractors).
Another: that duty holders were responsible for the health and safety of people at risk from the work of their business. It’s the precise nature of that responsibility that’s again in the news after a spate of high-profile safety incidents. What of it? Well, now, the state of Victoria, following precedents set years ago in the Australian Capital Territory and the state of Queensland, has moved to criminalize industrial manslaughter.
What prompted the aggressive move? An independent review of the efficacy of the harmonized legislation – now nearly a decade old – recently concluded; and one of its recommendations was an increase in maximum penalties for civil offenses. Another recommendation was including the separate offense of industrial manslaughter into the WHS Act. Now Victoria, which, of course, has not enacted the harmonized WHS Act, is planning on amending its existing WHS legislation, the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, to add the criminal offense of industrial manslaughter.
Details are still forthcoming, as no one yet has a sense of what the proposed offense will look like in practice. But the main takeaway is that employers and possibly board members and senior officers could be held criminally liable for industrial manslaughter. Associated, maximum penalties could also be steep. For instance, maximum prison terms in Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory are 20 years; fines are 16 million AUD.
So what can PCBUs do as jurisdictions like Victoria move to criminalize industrial manslaughter? Lucky for employers, preparing for the passage of more stringent OHS legislation takes the same tools as developing OHS best practices at your business. A safe place to start – no pun intended – is to update your incident response plans and review your safety risk processes. But you shouldn’t stop there. Individual steps need to be grounded in an integrated safety strategy; and operationalizing that strategy requires integrated work safety software that manages every aspect of environmental health and safety, including incidents, risks, and hazards.