New industrial manslaughter laws have been passed by Queensland’s Parliament despite strong opposition from business groups and concerns about how these could affect the national harmonisation of Workplace Health and Safety laws.
Passed via the Work Health and Safety and Other Legislation Amendment Bill in October, the new laws can expose company executives and senior officers to a maximum of 20 years imprisonment if their conduct substantially contributes to the death of a worker. Companies can now also be penalised up to $10 million if the company’s gross negligence results in the death of a worker. Further, the defence of ‘accident’ will not be available to individual defendants.
Industrial manslaughter laws have been discussed on and off for decades. Most states and territories have shown tacit agreement to the idea in principle, but have generally relied on their respective Police Force to determine whether or not to criminally charge an individual for a workplace related fatality under the criminal code. The ACT is the only other jurisdiction to have actually legislated on the principle, until now.
These amending laws are a big step beyond the federally harmonised model of workplace health and safety laws currently adopted in most states and territories. This issue will no doubt hit the table at next year’s inter-governmental review of the nationally harmonised WHS laws. So it should be of interest to all businesses, not just those in Queensland.
In reality, and without taking away the gravity of a workplace fatality, these laws are in keeping with good governance practice and responsibility requirements in Australia generally. Executives and senior officers need to inform themselves on all corporate risks, develop an appropriate approach and ensure that approach is carried out. Workplace health and safety is one of those issues.
Finding an individual was so grossly negligent so as to have caused a fatality in the workplace is rare, so we wait to see how these amending laws will operate in practice. However, if businesses already comply with workplace health and safety laws, there are no further compliance steps required.
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Author: Charles Watson
8 November 2017