Long jail terms, $10m fines and WHSO roles introduced

4 October 2017

The Queensland government has recently introduced a 67 page Work Health and Safety (WHS) Amendment Bill so as to most notably: mandate safety measures in the WHS Codes of Practice; reintroduce the role of workplace health and safety officers; enable WHS Queensland inspectors to make on the spot determinations of WHS disputes; establish an independent statutory office for WHS prosecutions; prohibit duty holders from entering enforceable undertakings in lieu of prosecution for offences involving a fatality; and as the headline states – to introduce an industrial manslaughter offence with a 20 year jail term and $10 million in fines.

The amendments come off the back of the former Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Time Lyons’ ‘Best Practice Review’ of the State’s WHS regime, which was developed in response to last year’s incidents at Dreamworld and an Eagle Farm worksite which resulted in six fatalities. Lyons made 58 recommendations and the WHS amendment Bill seeks to implement them all.

The manslaughter amendment would be a significant change for Queensland, considering these penalties are substantially higher than the current maximum WHS penalties. For at present, category 1 (reckless conduct) offences hold a maximum jail term of five years for an individual, and fines of up to $3 million for a corporation.

The introduction of this offence has been criticised by some stakeholders as unnecessary, as the category 1 offences in the WHS Act are also currently prospected as a crime in the Queensland Criminal Code.

The category 1 offences under the WHS Act are rarely used in enforcement action” – Clyde & Co Partner, Alena Titterton. Further, Ms Titterton went on to say that the ACT have been using corporation manslaughter provisions since 2004 and they are again, seldom in use, “if ever”.

However, the State Industrial Relations Minister – Grace Grace believes that the harsher penalties relating to the new manslaughter provisions are necessary so as to deter employers who are tempted to cut corners when it comes to safety in the workplace as they “won’t be able to hide behind elaborate corporate structures to evade their responsibilities [any longer]”. Moreover, the amendments will increase public protection by “introducing new maintenance, operation and competency requirements for the inspection and operation of amusement devices”.

If the Bill is passed, Queensland will become only the second Australian jurisdiction with a specific industrial manslaughter-type offence…a simple case of “watch this space”!