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.