The Guardian April 24, 2002


Workplace deaths legislation.
Employers run for cover

by Peter Mac

Victorian unions have attacked the reaction by employer groups and 
conservative politicians to the Bracks government's proposed new 
legislation over workplace deaths.

If passed in a few weeks time, any company official found guilty of gross 
negligence leading to serious injury or death of an employee could be 
jailed for up to five years or fined $180,000. A firm convicted under the 
new legislation would face fines of up to $5 million.

Significantly, the legislation is specifically aimed at large companies. 
Smaller employers are already subject to the common law crime of 
manslaughter, but a loophole in the law currently allows larger firms to 
escape prosecution.

In full-page advertisements in major newspapers last week, eight employer 
groups argued that the legislation was "harsh", that safety was a "shared 
responsibility", and that in any case the rate of workplace deaths in 
Victoria had fallen from 104 to 31 over the last 13 years. They even argued 
that bringing in such a law would actually increase the risks to employees.

Union leaders have replied that safety is certainly a shared responsibility 
but that this in itself does not absolve employers from their 
responsibility to provide a safe working environment for their employees. 
(The legislation is intended to deal specifically with cases where there is 
evidence that gross negligence on the part of an employer led to death or 
serious injury.)

Victorian Trades Hall Council Secretary, Leigh Hubbard, stated that "the 
Bill ... reflects the will of the community and represents appropriate 
punishment for those few employers who commit acts of gross negligence 
which result in death or serious injury."

The unions have also denied that the new law is unacceptably harsh. Mr 
Hubbard commented: "When a driver on our roads kills or injures a person 
through gross negligence they are subjected to the criminal law through the 
crime of culpable driving. Why should death or serious injury caused by 
gross negligence in our workplaces be treated any differently from those on 
our roads?"

Finally, the unions have rejected adamantly the employers' argument that 
the legislation is unnecessary since the rate of workplace deaths has 
fallen. Noting that there are some 1000 serious workplace injuries in of 
Victoria each year, Mr Hubbard stated "One death is one too many, and among 
the 31 workplace deaths last year a number were the result of gross 
negligence."

"We cannot understand why employer associations or the Liberal or National 
parties would want to support those rogue employers who, without 
conscience, have killed or maimed workers."

The legislation should pass the lower house, but is likely to face 
opposition in the upper house. The unions were planning a major rally for 
Tuesday this week to take place during discussion on the bill.

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