Do we need to rethink safety prosecutions?

I have seen a number of recent posts and comments on various sites, noting where company executives have been prosecuted and jailed for health and safety breaches. The general tone of the observations has been that this is an approach that should be adopted in Australia, and that the relevant authorities should be far more active in pursuing these types of prosecutions.

Set out below is an article that I did for IFAP in Western Australia. It appears in the December issue of SafetyWA.

The article suggests that there might be more to a prosecution approach than meets the eye, and perhaps even an argument that safety prosecutions could undermine the end goal of trying to achieve “safe” workplaces.

I am not trying to suggest a “correct” approach, but like so much that we do in safety, we should not just assume that a prosecution approach is right. Perhaps it is time for the genuine debate and critical thinking that was missed during the harmonization process.

The value of safety prosecutions in Western Australia

Criminal prosecutions for safety and health breaches are generally regarded as an important element of effective regulation of safety and health behaviour. Part of that is the commonly accepted belief that the higher the penalties for health and safety breach, the more effective the deterrent effect of prosecution is likely to be.

I, for one, am not entirely convinced that prosecutions are in fact an effective measure for improved safety performance (ironic from a lawyer, I know).

Some studies have suggested that criminalising safety breaches can have an adverse effect on safety (See for example, International Journal of Applied Aviation Studies, Volume 10, Number 1, 2010, page 31 on).

Australian studies have shown that the vast majority of prosecutions of “Company Officers”, have been of small businesses – directors who are “hands on” in the business (see for example Foster, N. (2005) Personal Liability of Company officers for Corporate Health and Safety Breaches: Section 26 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 (NSW). 18 Australian Journal of Labour Law, 107). This obviously calls into question the equity of offences aimed at Company Officers.

Anecdotally, my own experience is that the response of many organisations to increased legal liability for safety and health breaches is not improved safety risk management, but improved legal risk management. Just witness the harmonisation debate over the last 5 years – a debate that has been lead almost entirely by legal commentators, not the safety profession.

The psychology here is also interesting.

A number of years ago, while working as principal safety advisor at Woodside Energy, some people far cleverer than me in the area of safety culture advised that to change human behaviour, the best strategies were to ensure that consequences for individuals were:

  • Certain;
  • Immediate; and
  • Positive.

If people always got immediate, positive feedback whenever they did the right thing for safety, then this would drive the right behaviour.

The least effective way to drive change? Consequences that are uncertain, delayed and negative (think safety prosecutions!)

Leaving aside for one moment broader philosophies about safety prosecution in general, what value do they provide to the understanding of safety management

In October 2013, BHP Billiton Iron Ore and HWE Newman Services were convicted and ordered to pay a total of $363,000 in safety fines and costs, after a mobile maintenance supervisor was killed while working on the tyre of a heavy earth mover in Western Australia.

The worker was fatally struck by a tyre handler device, which sprung off the tyre when it was overinflated.

The incident occurred in August 2008

There is a well-worn saying that justice delayed is justice denied. Similarly, safety lessons delayed are safety lessons lost, and in this case the lessons learned are not available to us until 5 years after the event? Except that they aren’t.

The prosecution occurred in the Magistrate’s court, and decisions are not freely available or published. There is no published judgement that we can look to, to understand the safety management failures behind the event. It seems that the sum total of information that might have generated valuable insights into important safety management failures around risk management, contractor safety management or other critical safety management elements is – zero

I have been involved in safety law and safety management for the best part of 24 years. There are some things I know, and an enormous number of things that I do not know. But one thing that I do know to an absolute certainty is that organisations do not examine their safety management systems with anywhere near the level of rigour that they are subject to in legal proceedings. For all its faults, the legal process has the potential to offer some genuine insights into the failure of safety management, but clearly, that potential cannot be realised where cases take years to finalise, and there is no record of the findings to review.

Perhaps it is time to re-examine the role of prosecution and inquiry in safety management and to think differently about what the response to safety failures ought to be. Certainly, the current approach cannot be blindly accepted as adding value.

9 thoughts on “Do we need to rethink safety prosecutions?

  1. I could not agree more with these comments. As soon as we halt an incident investigation at the guilty party level, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn and thereby improve safety. The opportunity to work on an approved project should be the preferred approach to a safety breach. We spend far too much time finding a human to blame and far too little time asking why a decision to do something the resulted in an injury seemed like a reasonable decision at the time. To understand why something adverse happened an investigator needs to get inside the adverse event rather than assume the adverse event resulted from the decisions made. It is very likely that such a decision could equally be made and not result in an adverse outcome. This tends to negate the guilty party approach and that recognition hopefully causes us to ask why until there are no further opportunities to respond to why.

  2. Re:”The prosecution occurred in the Magistrate’s court, and decisions are not freely available or published. There is no published judgement that we can look to, to understand the safety management failures behind the event. It seems that the sum total of information that might have generated valuable insights into important safety management failures around risk management, contractor safety management or other critical safety management elements is – zero”.
    WorkSafe Victoria have Recent Prosecutions on the website.
    I think enforecable undertakings should be used more often which can have a better outcome and to a wider audience.

    personal opinion only – not the view of my employer.

  3. “If people always got immediate, positive feedback whenever they did the right thing for safety”

    Are you assuming that people deserve to be rewarded for a deviation or rewarded for doing what they are told? both have issues…just want your view

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s