Self incrimination in internal investigations: Is this really a thing?

If you have followed my thoughts over the past few years, you will know that one of my concerns about the increasing emphasis on legal sanctions and penalties for health and safety breaches is the likely increase in legal risk management strategies at the expense of health and safety management. (See for example: $450,000: Is this what we want from prosecutions?; Is this really what due diligence was designed for?; Rethinking safety prosecutions part 2)

This concern has poked its head up again in the recent Federal Court decision, Grant v BHP Coal Pty Ltd (No 2) [2015] FCA 1374. The case dealt with important issues about the rights of an employer to insist employees undertake a medical assessment with a doctor of the employer’s choice, a topic that has pervaded the management of injured workers for many years.

This topic is important and serious, and it has implications for both employees and employers. But the case also touched on another, far less well understood issue – the rights of employees to claim to self incrimination and refuse to answer questions in a company’s internal safety investigation.

Does an employee have a legal right refuse to participate in your internal incident investigations on the basis that in doing so, they may expose themselves to the threat of prosecution?

The protection against self incrimination has long been recognised in health and safety legislation. Legislation recognises the difference between “voluntary” interviews and “compelled” interviews. In the latter case, information provided to a regulator during a compelled interview cannot be used against the person providing the information, except in very limited circumstances, such as perjury.

In the Grant case, the employee had been terminated following a long running dispute over his capacity to return to work. As part of that process, Mr Grant attended an interview about his refusal to attend a medical appointment with a company nominated doctor.  During that interview, Mr Grant refused to answer questions unless they were put to him in writing.

During the various appeal stages of his case, Mr Grant asserted that he has refused to cooperate in the investigation on the basis of his privilege against self incrimination.

The Federal Court noted at [106]:

Privilege against self-incrimination means that a witness cannot be compelled to answer questions that may show the witness has committed a crime with which the witness may be charged if the answers may place the witness in real and appreciable danger of conviction:  Sorby v The Commonwealth (1983) 152 CLR 281 at 294.

The Federal Court went on to confirm the privilege against self incrimination :

  • Can apply to questions asked by an employer [108]; and
  • Can apply to questions asked during a workplace interview that have implications for a persons liability under health and safety legislation [108].

Unfortunately the Federal Court said that they could not decide the issue on the facts of the case. Or more eloquently, they said they could not decide it in “such a vacuum of facts” [110].

The Court did not need to decide the question of self incrimination to decide the case, but clearly reinforced its relevance in workplaces.

Of course, the next question that follows, is what is an employers rights in relation to an employee who refuses to participate in an investigation on the basis of self incrimination? Can they discipline them? Can they terminate their employment?

I do not want to try and give a definitive answer here, but it is at least arguable that any “adverse action” taken against an employee because they were exercising a legal right could amount to a breach of the General Protection provisions of the Fair Work Act, and leave the employer liable to penalties.

If the purpose of health and safety legislation is to help ensure safer workplaces, in my view, there is a need for constant vigilance to understand when the legislation undermines, as opposed to promotes, better safety management. If the legal risks have become so acute that employees no longer need to cooperate with safety investigations, it may at least be time for a discussion on the merits of penalties and prosecutions.

 

 

 

 

Demonstrating compliance: The SD Tillett case

I recently posted an article about the way health and safety is measured and reported in organisations.  In the article, I argued that many of the indicators that we used to understand how well health and safety risks are managed in our business are measures of activity and provide no real assurance that health and safety risks are being managed.  I suggested that the assumptions that are drawn from these indicators create a dangerous illusion of safety – because all our indicators are green”, we assume our risks are managed.

The article prompted a lot of discussion and several questions about how health and safety are measured and how organisations might better understand if their health and safety risks are being managed.

I thought it would be helpful to further the debate by looking at a few cases where organisations have met their legal obligations, even though there was an accident to try and understand the sorts of factors that are considered.

In this article, I want to look at the decision of Moore v SD Tillett Memorials Pty Ltd [2002] SAIRC 47, a decision of the South Australian Industrial Relations Court.

On 21 December 1999, an employee, Mr Bacon was helping another employee, Graham Muscat, move an “A” frame loaded with approximately seven granite sheets.  The men were moving the granite sheets using a forklift.

Mr Bacon died when the granite sheets loaded on the ‘A’ frame fell, trapping him between the granite sheets and a metal table.

The defendant company, SD Tillett Memorials Pty Ltd was charged as follows:

On the 21st day of December 1999 at Hindmarsh in the said State, being an employer, failed to ensure so far as was reasonably practicable that its employee, namely Craig Anthony Bacon, was, whilst at work, safe from injury and risk to health and, in particular:

(a)     failed to provide and maintain so far as was reasonably practicable a safe system of work; and

(b)     failed to provide such information instruction training and supervision as were reasonably necessary to ensure that the employee was safe from injury and risks to health.

The particulars of the charge, that is the precise allegations were that SD Tillett failed to:

·         Provide and maintain a safe system for the movement of ‘A’ frames loaded with granite sheets.

·         Provide and maintain a safe system for the loading and storage of granite sheets on ‘A’ frames.

·         Provide adequate information instruction and training to Graham Muscat will about the safe movement of “A” frames loaded with granite sheets.

·         Provide adequate supervision for the employee and Graham Muscat.

·         Provide adequate information instruction and training to the Operations Manager, Stephen Tanner about the loading and storage of granite sheets on ‘A’ frames.

The process for moving the granite sheets required them to be secured using a strapping.  When Mr Bacon died, the slabs had not been strapped in accordance with what was described as a “standard operating procedure”.  While there was some discussion about a memorandum setting out this standard operating procedure, it was not produced in the trial period

Earlier in the day, there had been an incident where slabs had not been strapped, and disciplinary action was taken against the work involved.

There is no discussion in the case about SD Tillett’s injury rates or any other lead or lag indicators used to measure health and safety.

The evidence at the hearing came from the workers.  In all but one case, that evidence was consistent.  The evidence confirmed that all the workers understood the requirements to strap the granite, and this was a requirement that was continually reinforced by the operations manager Mr Tanner.  The Court said:

… there is a common thread through the evidence of those witnesses that there was a continuous verbal reinforcement of the requirement to strap loaded “A” frames.

The only person who said he was not aware of the prohibition against moving the granite without strapping was the driver of the forklift, Mr Muscat.  In relation to his evidence, the Court said:

It is my view that Muscat has tried to cover up the system of work that he adopted at the time of the incident. His denial of any rule about strapping loaded “A” frames is contrary to the evidence of all the other witnesses who were either former employees or current employees of the defendant.

With respect to the written standard operating procedure or memorandum, although the document was not produced at the trial, the Court formed the view that the procedures had been committed in writing, because all the witnesses gave evidence that they had seen a written procedure or memorandum.  The prosecution then argued that a written record should have been made of who had received the document.  In response to this, the Court said:

This is of course desirable but what would it have achieved against a background of constant verbal reinforcement? Recording who received the document had not been carried out in the past although there was a universal awareness of the document by the employees and former employees save and except for Muscat. As I have indicated I find that the evidence of Muscat is unreliable.

This proposition is in quite stark contrast to what we normally see.  Here we have witnesses who clearly understand the safe procedures are doing the work, even though a documented procedure could not be produced.  Normally, we are faced with a position with a documented procedure can be produced, but nobody understands it or complies with it.

The preponderance of evidence in the case was that the employees were aware of the requirement to strap the granite before moving it using a forklift, there was constant verbal reinforcement of this requirement, and disciplinary action was taken against employees who did not comply with this requirement.  In the face of this evidence, the Court found:

I find on the totality of the evidence led by the prosecution that it has not discharged the onus of proving beyond reasonable doubt that there were one or more measures which the defendant may have reasonably practicably taken but did not take which would have eliminated or ameliorated the risk.

I find that there were constant verbal directions to strap loaded “A” frame pallets before any movement. The responsibility for the incident lies not with the defendant but elsewhere.

I therefore find the defendant not guilty.

This case reinforces that it is incumbent on an employer to be able to demonstrate that they have proper systems in place to manage the health and safety risks in their business and that those systems are implemented, understood, constantly applied and enforced.

 The inherent weakness in most health and safety reporting is it does not confirm any of these matters.

Injury rates do not give us this information.  The number of action items that have been closed out does not give us this information.  The number of management walk arounds or “interactions” does not give us this information.

Let me address the obvious objection at this point.  In my view, this is not just about legal compliance.  If an organisation does not have effective assurance that they have proper systems in place to manage the health and safety risks in their business and that those systems are implemented, understood, constantly applied and enforced how can they have any comfort that health and safety risks are being managed?

In my view, it is beyond argument that health and safety reporting needs to move beyond measures of injury rates and “activity” and start to provide positive assurance the critical health and safety risks are being managed.

 

 

 

Reflections on Safety: Reasonably Practicable

In August 2016, I wrote a WHS Update about the High Court decision, Deal v Father Pius Kodakkathanath [2016] HCA 31 which considered the legal test of Reasonably Practicable in the context of Australian health and safety legislation. Shortly after that, one of my connections on Linkedin posted an article about Reasonably Practicable. The article offered an engineering perspective on “As Low as Reasonably Practicable” (ALARP), stating:

… recent developments in Australian workplace health and safety law place proactive responsibilities on senior personnel in organisations, so they must be fully informed to make proper decisions

This sentiment seemed similar to an earlier engineering publication which argued that ALARP and “So Far as is Reasonably Practicable” (SFARP) were different and that this difference was, in part a least as result of “harmonised”, WHS legislation.

In both cases, I believed the articles were misaligned with the legal construct of Reasonably Practicable and misrepresented that there had been a change in the legal test of Reasonably Practicable prompted by changes to WHS legislation.

This background caused me to reflect again on the notion of Reasonably Practicable and what it means in the context of legal obligations for health and safety.

To start, I do take issue with the suggestion that changes to WHS legislation have resulted in a shift in what Reasonably Practicable means. The basis of this idea seems to be an apparent change in terminology from ALARP to SFARP.

The term SFARP was in place in health and safety legislation before the introduction of WHS and jurisdictions that have not adopted WHS legislation still use the term. For example, the primary obligations under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 are set out in section 20, and state:

To avoid doubt, a duty imposed on a person by this Part or the regulations to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, health and safety requires the person …

Indeed, the architects of WHS legislation[1] specifically retained the term Reasonably Practicable because it was a common and well-understood term in the context of Australian health and safety legislation:

5.51 Reasonably practicable is currently defined or explained in a number of jurisdictions. The definitions are generally consistent, with some containing more matters to be considered than others. The definitions ‘are consistent with the long settled interpretation by courts, ‘in Australia and elsewhere.

5.52 The provision of the Vic Act relating to reasonably practicable was often referred to in submissions (including those of governments) and consultations as either a preferred approach or a basis for a definition of reasonably practicable.

5.53 We recommend that a definition or section explaining the application of reasonably practicable be modelled on the Victorian provision. We consider that, with some modification, it most closely conforms to what would be suitable for the model Act.  [My emphasis added]

In my view, it is unarguable that the concept of Reasonably Practicable has been well-settled in Australian law for a considerable period, and the concept has not changed with the introduction of WHS legislation.

If we accept that Reasonably Practicable has been consistently applied in Australia for some time, the next question is, what does it mean?

Reasonably Practicable is a defined term in most health and safety legislation in Australia.  Section 20(2) of the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, for example, states:

(2) To avoid doubt, for the purposes of this Part and the regulations, regard must be had to the following matters in determining what is (or was at a particular time) reasonably practicable in relation to ensuring health and safety—

 (a) the likelihood of the hazard or risk concerned eventuating; 

 (b) the degree of harm that would result if the hazard or risk eventuated; 

 (c) what the person concerned knows, or ought reasonably to know, about the hazard or risk and any ways of eliminating or reducing the hazard or risk; 

 (d) the availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or reduce the hazard or risk; 

 (e) the cost of eliminating or reducing the hazard or risk.

In the High Court decision, Slivak v Lurgi (Australia) Pty Ltd [2001] HCA 6, Justice Gaudron described Reasonably Practicable as follows:

The words “reasonably practicable” have, somewhat surprisingly, been the subject of much judicial consideration. It is surprising because the words “reasonably practicable” are ordinary words bearing their ordinary meaning. And the question whether a measure is or is not reasonably practicable is one which requires no more than the making of a value judgment in the light of all the facts. Nevertheless, three general propositions are to be discerned from the decided cases:

  • the phrase “reasonably practicable” means something narrower than “physically possible” or “feasible”;
  • what is “reasonably practicable” is to be judged on the basis of what was known at the relevant time;
  • to determine what is “reasonably practicable” it is necessary to balance the likelihood of the risk occurring against the cost, time and trouble necessary to avert that risk.[2] [my emphasis added]

Another High Court decision, Baiada Poultry Pty Ltd v The Queen [2012] HCA 14, emphasised similar ideas.

The case concerned that the death of a subcontracted worker during forklift operations.  Baiada was the Principal who had engaged the various contractors to perform the operations and in an earlier decision the court had concluded:

it was entirely practicable for [Baiada] to required contractors to put loading and unloading safety measures in place and to check whether those safety managers were being observed from time to time ((2011) 203 IR 396 at 410)

On appeal, the High Court framed this finding differently.  They observed:

As the reasons of the majority in the Court of Appeal reveal by their reference to Baiada checking compliance with directions it gave to [the contractors], the question presented by the statutory duty “so far as is reasonably practicable” to provide and maintain a safe working environment could not be determined by reference only to Baiada having a legal right to issue instructions to its subcontractors. Showing that Baiada had the legal right to issue instructions showed only that it was possible for Baiada to take that step. It did not show that this was a step that was reasonably practicable to achieve the relevant result of providing and maintaining a safe working environment. That question required consideration not only of what steps Baiada could have taken to secure compliance but also, and critically, whether Baiada’s obligation “so far as is reasonably practicable” to provide and maintain a safe working environment obliged it: (a) to give safety instructions to its (apparently skilled and experienced) subcontractors; (b) to check whether its instructions were followed; (c) to take some step to require compliance with its instructions; or (d) to do some combination of these things or even something altogether different. These were questions which the jury would have had to decide in light of all of the evidence that had been given at trial about how the work of catching, caging, loading and transporting the chickens was done.[3] [my emphasis added]

In light of these, and other decided cases it is possible to form a practical test to consider what is Reasonably Practicable.  In my view, it is necessary for an organisation to demonstrate that they:

  • Have “Proper Systems” to manage the health and safety risks in their business; and
  • Exercise “Adequate Supervision” to ensure that the Proper Systems are implemented and effective to manage the risks.

What constitutes Proper Systems and Adequate Supervision is a judgement call that needs to be determined with regard to the risks.  It requires an organisation to balance the risk against the cost, time and trouble of managing it.[4]

It is also worth noting at this point, that Reasonably Practicable is, generally speaking, an organisational obligation.  It is not an individual,[5] and in particular, it is not an employee obligation.

I often see, when working with clients, safety documents required be signed by employees that the state that risks have been controlled to “ALARP”.  This is not the employee’s responsibility and the extent to which an employee does or does not control the risk to ALARP does not affect an employer’s obligations.

In broad terms, it is the organisation’s (PCBU or employer) obligation to manage risks as low as, or so far as is, Reasonably Practicable.  The employee obligation is to do everything “reasonable”.  This includes complying with the organisation’s systems.

It is the organisation’s obligation to identify the relevant health and safety risks and define how they will be controlled, ensuring that the level of control is “Reasonably Practicable.  It is the employee’s obligation to comply with the organisation’s requirements.

So, what might Reasonably Practicable look like in practice?

I recently defended a case that involved a worker who was seriously injured at work.  Although the injury did not result from a fall from height, the prosecution case against my client was based on failure to meet its obligations about working at heights.

My client had, on any measure, a Proper System for managing the risk of work at heights.  They had a documented working at height Standard and Procedure both of which were consistent with industry best practice and regulator guidance material.  All work at height above 1.8 m required a permit to work and a JHA.  The documented procedures prescribed appropriate levels of supervision and training.

In the three years before the relevant incident, my client had not had a working at height incident of any sort nor had they had a health and safety incident at all.  Based on all of our investigations as part of preparing the case, there was nothing to suggest that the incident information was not legitimate.

The activity which was being performed at the time of the incident was conducted routinely, at least weekly, at the workplace.

In looking to construct a Reasonably Practicable argument to defend the case what would we be trying to do?  In essence, I would be trying to establish that the incident was an aberration, a “one off departure” from an otherwise well understood, consistently applied system of work that was wholly appropriate to manage the risk of working at heights.

In practice, that would mean:

  • Producing statements from all of the workers who performed this task describing how it was performed in practice, and demonstrating that their understanding of the way the work was performed in practice was consistent with the requirements of the organisation’s documented systems;
  • Producing completed documentation from when the job had been performed previously, and demonstrating that the documentation was consistent with the organisation’s requirements, and completed correctly;
  • Producing statements from supervisors who approved the documentation and oversaw the performance of the work and demonstrating that their understanding of the way that the work was performed in practice was consistent with the requirements of the organisation’s documented systems;
  • Producing completed documentation from when the injured worker had performed the work previously and demonstrating that the documentation was consistent with the organisation’s requirements and completed correctly.

There may be other information that we would seek, but in broad terms, the information outlined above helps to build a case that there was a proper system that was effectively implemented and that:

  • All the workers understood the system,
  • All the workers understood how it ought to have been applied, and
  • It was applied in practice.

What happened?

Rather than be able to demonstrate that the incident was a one-off departure from an otherwise effective system, the evidence revealed a complete systemic failure.  While the documented system was a Proper System and complied with all relevant industry standards and guidelines, it was not implemented in practice.

Most compelling was the fact that, despite this being a weekly task, there was not a single instance of the working at height Standard and Procedure been complied with.  We could not produce a single example where either the injured worker or indeed any worker who had performed the task had done so under an approved permit to work with an authorised JHA.

All of the workers gave evidence that the primary risk control tool on site was a Take 5.  The Take 5 is a preliminary risk assessment tool, and only if that risk assessment scored 22 or above was a JHA required.  The task in question was always assessed as 21.  The requirement for a JHA, in the minds of the workforce, was never triggered and none of them understood the requirements of the Standard or Procedure.

To me, this case is entirely indicative of the fundamental failure of Reasonably Practicable in most workplaces.  In the vast majority of cases that I have been involved in the last 25 years, organisations have systems that would classify as Proper Systems.  They are appropriate to manage the risk that they were designed to manage.

Equally, organisations cannot demonstrate Adequate Supervision.  While there may be audits, inspections, checking and checklists – there is no targeted process specifically designed to test and understand whether the systems in place to manage health and safety risks in the business are in fact implemented and are effective to manage those risks.

In my experience, most organisations spend far too much time trying to devise the “perfect” Proper System.  We spend far too little time understanding what needs to be done to confirm that the System works, and then leading the confirmation process.

Reasonably Practicable has not changed.

Reasonably Practicable is not a numeric equation.

Reasonably Practicable changes over time.

Reasonably Practicable is an intellectual exercise and a judgement call to decide how an organisation will manage the health and safety risks in its business.

Reasonably Practicable requires an organisation to demonstrate that they:

  • Have “Proper Systems” to manage the health and safety risks in their business; and
  • Exercise “Adequate Supervision” to ensure that the Proper Systems are implemented and effective to manage the risks.

What constitutes Proper Systems and Adequate Supervision is a judgement call that needs to be determined with regard to the risks.  It requires an organisation to balance the risk against the cost, time and trouble of managing it.

[1] See the National Review into Model Occupational Health and Safety Laws: First Report, October 2008.

[2] Slivak v Lurgi (Australia) Pty Ltd [2001] HCA 6 [53].

[3] Baiada Poultry Pty Ltd v The Queen [2012] HCA 14 [33].

[4] See also: Safe Work NSW v Wollongong Glass P/L [2016] NSWDC 58 and Collins v State Rail Authority of New South Wales (1986) 5 NSWLR 209.

[5] There are some exceptions to this where an individual, usually a manager or statutory officeholder will be required to undertake some action that is Reasonably Practicable.

This article is a general discussion about Reasonably Practicable and related concepts. it should not be relied on, and is not intended to be specific  legal advice.

Post incident conduct: Is it relevant?

You can download a PDF version of this update HERE

A recent Victorian decision, Australian Box Recycling , received some attention on health and safety social media sites because of comments about the lack of remorse by the company.

The case involved a workplace fatality, but prior to the prosecution, the company applied to deregister and did not take part in the proceedings. Deregistration was unsuccessful, although the owners of Australian Box Recycling had started a new company doing similar things, and the case against the company proceeded.

The prosecution argued that the actions by Australian Box Recycling showed a lack of remorse for the incident, and the court agreed describing their conduct as “contemptible“, imposing an $800,000 fine:

Their attempt to wash their hands of their responsibilities by shutting down the company once charges were laid, refusing to take part in court proceedings, and starting up a similar company just nine months after their employee died is utterly contemptible and should be condemned

The conduct of a company after a workplace accident can have a significant bearing on the outcome of legal proceedings. Very often, the actions taken by a company can be used to argue mitigation and reduce any penalty the Court might otherwise impose.

A notable example is when a company pleads guilty at the earliest opportunity. Although there are no hard and fast rules about the value of an early guilty plea, it is often associated with discounts on penalties of up to 25%.

Other “post-accident” factors include:

  • The steps taken by the company to improve health and safety;
  • The level of support shown for any injured personnel and their families; and
  • The level of remorse shown by an organisation – often evidence by the factors above.

Conduct that evidences a lack of remorse or a lack of cooperation can have significant, adverse consequences for a company.

One case where this played out was the prosecution of Esso Australia Pty Ltd
following the Longford Gas Plant Explosion in 1998.

In the sentencing hearing following prosecution, the Court was very critical of Esso’s ongoing failure to accept responsibility for the accident:

However, before imposing sentence on Esso it is unfortunately necessary to examine the litigious conduct of Esso in these proceedings. It is necessary both of itself and as an incident of sentencing – remorse and rehabilitation being relevant to that end.

Esso and its senior officers have expressed remorse for the tragic loss of life and injury … I have no doubt that that personal remorse is genuine … I acknowledge that genuine remorse. However, personal expressions of remorse need to be translated into reality. In the present case, they have not been. here are three matters which militate against corporate remorse.” [40 – 43]

The factors that mitigated against that remorse were:

  • The litigious treatment of the employees;
  • The conduct of the defence in the trial, which was described as “one of obfuscation – designed not to clarify, but to obscure” [45]; and
  • The “lamentable failure of Esso to accept its responsibility for these tragic events“. [46]

In another example, a company, Ferro Con (SA) Pty Ltd was heavily criticised following a workplace fatality when it relied on an insurance policy:

In my opinion Mr Maione and Ferro Con have taken positive steps to avoid having to accept most of the legal consequences of their criminal conduct as determined by the course of justice. This has occurred through Mr Maione successfully calling on an insurer to pay his fine .” [78]

In my opinion Mr Maione’s actions are so contrary to a genuine acceptance of the legal consequences of his criminal offending that they dramatically outweigh the benefits to the justice system of the early guilty plea and statement of remorse. Accordingly it would be entirely inappropriate to grant any reduction of penalty to Mr Maione or Ferro Con in these circumstances .” [81]

But it is not just prosecutions where post incident behaviour by a company and its officer can influence the outcome of a legal process, or lead to criticism.

A striking example comes from the Montara Commission of Inquiry.

The Inquiry was established following the uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons from an offshore drilling platform off the coast of North West Australia in August 2009.

During the Inquiry, one of the key participants. PTTEPAA was heavily criticised for its conduct, to the point that the Inquiry recommended that the Australian Government review PTTEPAA’s licence to operate in Australia:

The Inquiry considers that the manner in which PTTEPAA approached the National Offshore Petroleum Authority (NOPSA), the NT DoR and the Inquiry itself provides further evidence of the company’s poor governance. PTTEPAA did not seek to properly inform itself as to the circumstances and the causes of the Blowout. The information that it provided to the regulators was consequently incomplete and apt to mislead. Its dealings with this Inquiry followed a similar pattern.

The Inquiry recommends that the Minister for Resources and Energy review PTTEPAA’s licence to operate at the Montara Oilfield. At this juncture the Inquiry has little confidence in PTTEPAA’s capacity to apply principles of sensible oilfield practice ” (page 12)

There is nothing in these cases that should discourage a business from understanding and acting on any legal rights they have following a workplace accident. However, these rights and any legal strategy need to be carefully balanced as part of an overall response.

 

The logic of safety penalties and prosecutions

Recently, the Victorian Government made some noise about increasing  penalties for breaches of health and safety legislation, with maximum fines increasing to $3M. This is consistent with most jurisdiction in Australia, and the drive for significant personal and corporate penalties for breaches of health and safety legislation has always been a feature of the safety industry in Australia.

Recently I wrote about the value of safety prosecutions ($450,000 is this what we want from safety prosecutions), and argued for an alternative model:

What if, rather than prosecutions, organisations who have had accidents could opt in to a safety learning program. In this case, for example, a detailed investigation and research project to understand all of the factors influencing the incident. Not just the role of the employers and workers, but also the regulator, the way safety information is made available and the best ways to help small and medium sized businesses implement a safety program.

  • The project would be paid for by the employer – so there is still a financial penalty.
  • Both the incident and the research could be highly publicised to add to the deterrent value.
  • Valuable lessons would be available within months, as opposed to meaningless factual statements after years.

Prosecutions can, and should still be reserved for the worst classes of offence but these would be very limited. [my emphasis added]

It has been reported by the ABC today (9 July 2016) that a Queensland electrical contractor has been charged with manslaughter following a fatality at a building site.

Leaving aside the merits of the individual case, this action does beg the question, why all the fuss about penalties in health and safety legislation if they are not used for the most serious offences? What does it say about health and safety legislation as an avenue for legitimate criminal prosecutions?

More importantly, would health and safety legislation be a better tool for improving health and safety in workplaces if it was not based on prosecution and fear, but had legitimate mechanisms for the promotion and sharing of lessons about workplace safety?

Is there an argument that says health and safety legislation should focus on workplace health and safety, and it should be left to the criminal law processes to deal with serious failures of workplace safety? Alternatively, if health and safety legislation is an appropriate tool to punish individuals and organisations, shouldn’t it be used when the opportunity arises?

If not, then what was all that harmonisation fear mongering about?

 

 

 

$450,000: Is this what we want from prosecutions?

I have written on the topic of safety prosecutions before (Do we need to rethink safety prosecutions?, Rethinking safety prosecutions part 2 and Is this really what due diligence was designed for?), and a recent article posted online by the Safety Institute of Australia Ltd (VIC: Company fined $450,000 after teenager dies in forklift rollover) has prompted me to write on the topic again, and ask the safety industry to really question what it expects from health and safety prosecutions, and whether the current system delivers against those expectations.

In brief, the prosecution arose out of a fatality on a  farm in Victoria.

The owner of a labour hire company, who was engaged to provide workers to pick snow peas on the farm, bought his 15-year-old son and two friends, aged 16 and 17 to help with the work. The owner left the property and soon after the boys began driving a forklift, which had been left unattended and with keys in the ignition, in an unsafe manner. The driving was described as driving fast around corners, skidding and drifting and not wearing seat belt.

Several hours later the owner’s son was killed driving the forklift when it tipped over.

The boys, who had been left  unsupervised, had not been provided with any safety induction or instructions at all, none of them were licensed to drive a forklift and two of them had no prior experience working on a farm.

The farming company was prosecuted for failing to ensure a safe workplace and pleaded guilty. They were fined $450,000

At this point, it is appropriate that I add a little bit of information about myself. I am a lawyer, so I have a vested interest in the prosecution process. I am a farmer’s son and have engaged in exactly the type of activity that led to the fatality – and worse. I have a son, and continually walk a fine line between introducing him to more and more responsibility and keeping him safe. I work in the safety industry and have spent the last 25 years of my working career trying to help organisations improve safety in their workplaces.

I should also say at this point that on the face of the summary of the case, there was an abject failure by a number of parties to properly consider and implement processes to manage health and safety risks in the workplace. A failure which, in my view, required a response.

My question is whether the “prosecution” response does anything for safety.

The legal profession talks about the penalties in legal proceedings in terms of general and specific deterrence. The idea that a penalty is designed to stop the individual or organisation from offending again, as well as sending a message to the broader community about refraining from unlawful conduct.

Even from a narrow, legalistic perspective, it is difficult to see how this type of prosecution is helpful.

While I am sure that a $450,000 fine had a reasonable punitive effect, I am not sure how much of a specific deterrent it was, over and above the death of a 15 year old boy. And I am certain that there are more productive ways to invest $450,000 in safety than injecting it into the Victorian Government coffers.

A $450,000 education campaign? Creating some dedicated “farm safety” inspectors?

Let’s get creative.

If all we want from safety prosecutions is to punish people and organisations who do not meet their legal obligations, then the current approach and increasing fines is probably appropriate.

But every safety conference I attend has regulators and consultants spruiking that we must learn from incidents and the only way to move safety forward is with a “no blame” culture, both of which are completely undermined by a system focused on prosecutions.

The fatality occurred in November 2014. The findings from the Court, the Wangaratta County Court did not emerge until April 2016. There is no written judgement, only press article summaries and media releases from the regulator.

the case is about proving the particulars of the charge. It is not about improving safety or making recommendations to address safety shortfalls.

And what did we learn? That teenage boys should not be left to drive forklifts unsupervised because they might do something silly? That people need to be told about hazards in the workplace? That access to equipment and machinery should be controlled?

Really?

What did we need to learn?

We need to understand why organisations like the farming company and the labour hire company had no systems in place to manage obvious risks.

How is it, that despite all of the regulators and all of the regulation, most organisations do not have anything remotely resembling a reasonable safety management process?

What if, rather than prosecutions, organisations who have had accidents could opt in to a safety learning program. In this case, for example, a detailed investigation and research project to understand all of the factors influencing the incident. Not just the role of the employers and workers, but also the regulator, the way safety information is made available and the best ways to help small and medium sized businesses implement a safety program.

  • The project would be paid for by the employer – so there is still a financial penalty.
  • Both the incident and the research could be highly publicised to add to the deterrent value.
  • Valuable lessons would be available within months, as opposed to meaningless factual statements after years.

Prosecutions can, and should still be reserved for the worst classes of offence but these would be very limited.

This is different from the current enforceable undertakings approach, because it is not designed to respond to the incident per se, but to understand the incident and create wider learnings.

And just a word on regulators – every major accident inquiry in recent times (think, Pike River, Montara, Macondo) has found serious failings in the performance of the regulator in the discharge of their duties.

What, if anything have we learned about the regulation and enforcement of safety in this case?

So, returning to my initial question: What do we it expect from health and safety prosecutions, and does the current system delivers against those expectations?

Is this really what due diligence was designed for?

On 24 February 2016 findings were handed down in the prosecution of another company officer under the due diligence provisions of the WHS legislation.

In WorkCover Authority of NSW (Inspector Moore) E&T Bricklaying Pty Ltd [2015] NSWDC 369, Mr Kose, a company officer and on site representative of E&T Bricklaying was prosecuted for failing to exercise due diligence in breach of the New South Wales WHS Act.

It is not clear in what “capacity” Mr Kose was a company officer, whether he was a director, CEO or performed some other role. It also seems implicit in the judgement that Mr Kose was involved in the day-to-day work. At paragraph 10, the judgement states:

There were five personnel involved in the laying of the blocks. They were Mr Kose, Mr Rahimi …..

There is nothing particularly instructive about the case, and it certainly does not add anything to the body of knowledge about who is or is not a “company officer”. However, the case does raise an interesting question about whether these were the sorts of cases that changes under WHS legislation to create positive obligations of due diligence on company offices were designed to address.

It appears clear that in whatever capacity Mr Kose was acting, he was a hands-on company officer involved in the day-to-day operations of the business. A typical, small business working director.

Safety and health legislation around Australia has always had provisions enabling the prosecution, and the reasonably easy prosecution, of people in that position. In his excellent paper Personal Liability of Company Offices for Corporate Occupational Health and Safety Breaches: Section 26 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 (NSW), Neil Foster points out that the vast majority of prosecutions against directors and managers involved officers who were directly involved in making specific decisions that led to the injury or fatality, and that the majority of companies whose offices were prosecuted were small (page 114).

This pattern seems to be repeating itself given the short history of due diligence prosecutions to date, and that despite all of the hoopla and razzmatazz attached to WHS legislation, in practical terms absolutely nothing has changed.

To the extent that due diligence provisions make it easier to prosecute company offices and increases the penalties against them, those provisions  continue to be used against hands-on, working directors in small businesses. Senior executives and boards of large organisations who are not involved in the day-to-day operations of their businesses have nothing personal to fear from health and safety prosecutions.

I am not sure that was the point of the changes to WHS legislation, and it is certainly not what was sold – and continues to be sold – by the safety industry.