Duty of care

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New WHS laws roll out in Victoria on July 1st will see a new criminal offence added to existing occupational health and safety laws. Workplace manslaughter sometimes referred to as industrial or corporate manslaughter, will now be a new offence.

The new offence hasn’t created additional responsibilities for PCBUs or officers, only increased the penalties for those that fail to enforce their current duties under the act.

Victoria is the fourth state in Australia to add this new criminal offence. ACT, Queensland, and the Northern Territory have all added manslaughter as a criminal offence to existing WHS laws. It’s not just Australia either.

The United Kingdom added similar offences to their WHS laws in 2008, known as the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.


What effects will the new law have on businesses and corporations?

The new laws will not operate retrospectively and will only come into play for any deaths which occur after July 1st, 2020. Intended as a strong deterrent to prevent workplace accidents, the new laws are sending a powerful message that negligence and failure to comply with WHS laws will no longer be tolerated.

The penalties associated with the new manslaughter workplace laws in Victoria include:

  • A maximum of twenty-five years imprisonment for individuals; and
  • A maximum fine of $16.5 million for body corporates.

They are intended as a strong deterrent for anyone currently not complying with workplace safety laws and should be a motivating factor to look at where your business stands.

One of the most significant components of the new law is that it isn’t just corporations or companies which can be fined or imprisoned, it’s also officers or representatives of the company who have a duty of care to the employees through the decisions they make.


What circumstances could see the new laws enforced?

Several different scenarios could cause the new manslaughter rules to be enforced, including falling short of the standard of care provided, an action with a high risk of death or severe injury, and a failure to act.

Currently, the law has been enforced once in Queensland since it was first introduced in 2018. A Queensland recycling company was charged after the death of one of their employees.

The employee died after being crushed between a truck and a reversing forklift on site. Work Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ) were only notified of the death after the worker’s daughter viewed CCTV footage of the incident and reported it to Queensland Police, who ultimately notified WHSQ.

Although the charge resulted in a suspended sentence of ten months and a $3 million fine for the company directors, it shows that authorities are ready and willing to prosecute offenders when they feel that action is required.


What do the new laws mean for businesses?

Regardless of whether your state or country currently has workplace manslaughter laws in effect, these new laws should be a wake-up call for any business that’s currently not complying with all their work health and safety responsibilities.

Ignorance of the law and your responsibilities for the health and safety of all employees will no longer be tolerated as an excuse. Not only should you ensure that you have safe systems of work in place at your business, including procedures and training, but that you also have an incident response plan in place an incident occurs.

Accidents at a workplace are never planned, and the accident scene involves a lot of stakeholders, including the victim(s), first responders, employees, and accident investigation teams. PCBUs must ensure that they retain control throughout the situation and detailed incident response plans are an essential part of this.


Things to think about

Where do you and your business stand regarding WHS laws? Are you in full compliance, or are there areas that could be improved on? Now is the perfect time to conduct a full WHS audit on your practices, policies, and procedures to ensure that there are no areas where you’re slipping or need to improve on.

At the end of the day, everyone wants to go to work and return home in the same condition that they started in. Providing safe systems of work and a safe working environment is the responsibility of all companies and their officers.


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