$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?

Due diligence master class

On 6 April 2016 I will be facilitating a due diligence masterclass in conjunction with IFAP from 8.00am until 3.00pm at the Esplanade Hotel in Fremantle, Western Australia.

The program is suitable for all industries and size of business.

Drawing on legal precedents and major accident investigations from all around the world, I will consider due diligence in the context of health and safety legislation including harmonised, WHS legislation and “accessorial liability” provisions  in Western Australia, Victoria and the offshore oil and gas industry.

The program will focus on the practical and legal expectations on mangers to control health and safety risks in their business, and what day-to-day application of those principles might look like.

Places are limited and the program is already 50% subscribed.

You can access information about the program here, book here, or contact me – gws@nexuslawyers.com.au if you would like to know more.

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.

 

 

Rethinking safety prosecutions part 2

Some time ago I wrote a post about the value of criminal prosecutions for safety breaches as part of effective safety management. The post is available HERE.

A discussion about the nature of “safety prosecutions” was recently held on LinkedIn following an article I posted about the acquittal of engineers involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (see for example the CSB Report). You can see the LinkedIn discussion HERE.

Given the limited scope to expand a discussion in LinkedIn comments, I promised to write a more fulsome article, which I have attempted to do below.

The starting point for discussion about safety prosecutions is, I think, to understand what prosecutions are designed to achieve.

Inevitably in any discussion about safety prosecutions there is a multiplicity of views about what people perceive the process is designed to achieve. These include, compensation, punishment, deterrence and the opportunity to “learn lessons“.

In Australia at least, it seems unlikely that the current prosecution regime would fulfill any of these perceptions.

First, occupational safety and health prosecutions are not designed to compensate anyone. The workers compensation regime and/or civil proceedings (i.e. claims in negligence) are designed to compensate people for loss caused by workplace accidents and incidents. They are an entirely separate legal process, and compensation does not form part of the consideration of a criminal occupational safety and health prosecution.

Neither are occupational safety and health prosecutions designed as an opportunity to learn lessons. Prosecutions are typically run in relation to a very narrow set of charges and “particulars“. For example, if it is alleged that an employer failed to do everything reasonably practicable in that it failed to enforce its JHA procedure then the prosecutions about whether:

  1. The alleged failure occurred; and
  2. It was reasonably practicable for the employer to enforce that procedure.

There are no lessons about what might constitute a good JHA procedure, or a good process for ensuring that the procedure is followed.

As a more practical matter, prosecutions are very limited in their ability to teach us lessons because inevitably any decisions are made several years after the event occurred. In many cases decisions are not even published so that even if there were lessons that could be learned, they are not available to us.

Theoretically, prosecutions are designed to punish wrongdoers and provide both specific and general deterrence, that is, deter the guilty party from offending again and act as a warning to all other parties not to offend in the future.

Again, the evidence is far from clear that occupational safety and health prosecutions achieve this outcome, insofar as there does not appear to be evidence that a robust prosecution regime decreases the number of health and safety incidents.

For example, the ninth edition of the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council Comparative Performance Monitoring Report issued in February 2008 show that Victoria and Western Australia, who had the lowest rate of prosecutions resulting in conviction at the time, also had the lowest incidence rates of injury and disease and enjoy the greatest reduction in average workers’ compensation premium rates over the three years to June 2006.

Of course, as with all statistical information, there could be any number of reasons for this finding. My point is not whether the finding is right or wrong. My point is we do not have the evidence and we have not had the discussion.

Although, the limited efficacy of criminal proceeding should not come as a surprise. The Robens Report published in the 1970s, an on which modern Australian health and safety legislation is based, identified:

The character of criminal proceedings against employers is inappropriate to the majority of situations which arise and the processes involved make little positive contribution towards the real objective of improving future standards and performance.

One of the ironies inherent in this discussion is that it is often the safety industry that is at the vanguard of the charge calling for significant prosecutions and directors to be sent to jail in the event of workplace accidents. This is the same industry that thrives on selling poor quality incident investigation processes based on a “no blame” culture.

It is interesting that the industry can say on one hand that we can only achieve effective safety outcomes where we don’t seek to blame, but that if something serious happens (i.e. someone dies) then there must be someone to blame and they should be prosecuted with the full force and effect of the law.

To me, this discussion is another example of the opportunity lost during the “harmonisation” of Australia’s health and safety legislation.

Rather than an informed discussion about how health and safety legislation could achieve the best health and safety outcomes, there seemed to be a broad assumption – not argued at best, unproven at worst – that, notwithstanding 20 or more years of history, prosecutions, large fines and personal liability was the best approach to improving health and safety outcomes in Australia.

I have personal views about what might be a better process to deal with those workplace accidents that are serious enough to warrant a “public response”, but this article is not the place to describe them. Rather, I hope that this article might prompt the safety industry to think more carefully about what it wants from its regulations and regulator and not use every workplace tragedy as an opportunity to promote the language of blame as an appropriate response to workplace accidents.

We cannot continue to promote safety using the message of fear and blame and then be surprised by how difficult it is to shift culture in an organisation.

 

When does the language of “zero harm” become unlawful?

I am not a fan of the language of “zero“, either as an aspiration or as a stated goal. It has never sat well with me, and seems so disconnected from day to day reality in both society and a workplace that people cannot help but become disconnected from, or dismissive of, the message behind the term. My view has always been that the language of zero actually often undermines the objectives it is trying to achieve (see this case for example).

If you are interested in this topic (and if you are involved in safety you should be) there are far more passionate, learned and articulate critics of the language of zero than me – See for example, anything by Dr. Robert Long.

However, recently I have been asked to do quite a bit of work around psychological harm in the context of occupational safety and health. In particular, how the legal risk management of psychological harm in the context of safety and health might differ from the Human Resources (HR)/employee relations context.

WHS legislation around Australia expressly includes “psychological” health within its remit and the Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum has acknowledged that they regard “health” as including “psychological” health, even though it is not expressly described in the State’s mining legislation.

What has emerged, at least to my mind, is the extent to which our policy, procedure and policing approach to safety and health, far from alleviating psychological harm in the workplace, might be contributing to it.

Safety management might be part of the problem.

In an ongoing Western Australian inquiry into the possible impact of fly in/fly out work on “mental health” the Australian Medical Association identified that the way health and safety is managed can contribute to a “distinct sense of entrapment” (page 43):

The AMA also expressed its concerns about this issue, noting that “[o]nerous rules, safety procedures and focus on achievement of production levels have been shown to create a distinct sense of entrapment in FIFO workers.”

The inquiry drew, in some measure, on an earlier report, the Lifeline WA FIFO/DIDO Mental Health Research Report 2013 which also appeared to note the adverse impact of safety and health management on psychological well-being. For example “[a]dhering to on-site safety rules” was identified as a workplace stress (page 77). Interestingly, the Lifeline report noted a sense of “intimidation” brought on by the number of rules and regulations associated with work on a mine, and :

This sense of intimidation was further mirrored in the outcomes of mining safety regulations which in theory were designed to care for workers but in practice led to inflexible regulation over genuine safety concerns (page 81).

Examples from the Lifeline report include:

… a participant recalled a situation in which a worker handling heavy loads required an adhesive bandage but was unable to ask someone to get them for him because he had to fill out an accident report first (which he was unable to do mid-job); hence he had to carry on working without attending to his cuts. Alternatively, another example of the application of safety rules in an inflexible manner was illustrated when a group of workers were reprimanded for not wearing safety glasses on a 40 degree day even though they could not see from them due to excessive sweating. Hence, safety rules themselves were accepted as a necessary part of work but their implementation in an inflexible uniform manner created stress as workers felt their impact hindered their ability to conduct basic work tasks safely and/or without attracting rebuke. Hence, site rules and regulations could translate into arbitrary and punitive forms of punishment, which undermined participants’ ability to fulfil jobs to their satisfaction and left them feeling insecure with their positions (page 81).

It seems, then, that we need to think beyond our own perceptions of what might contribute to workplace stress and understand the impact that our efforts to manage health and safety might actually be having. Again, as the Lifeline research noted:

… although past research has shown that site conditions and cultures, such as isolation and excessive drinking are problematic, this research shows that the regimented nature of working and living on-site also takes a toll on mental health and wellbeing. From the responses of many participants, it was apparent that following site safety rules (either under pressure of internal monitoring or in the perceived absence of adequate safety precautions by co-workers and supervisors) was a significant stressor. Participants felt unable to apply self-perceived common-sense judgments and also reported feeling vulnerable to intensive scrutinising, intimidation and threats of job loss (page 82) [my emphasis added].

The common criticisms of the language of “zero” seem to me to go directly to the factors that have been identified in this research as contributing to psychological harm in the workplace. The pressure to comply with rules, fear about reporting incidents, the inability to exercise individual judgement on how to manage risk and the inflexible application of process are all side-effects of the language of “zero“.

Up until this point the debate around “zero harm” and its utility (or otherwise) as the headline for safety management has been relatively benign. Apart from the advocacy of people like Dr Robert Long “zero harm” seems to have been perceived as a relatively neutral strategy, insofar as people believe that it “does no harm“, and “what’s the alternative?”.

It seems, in fact, that much harm may be perpetuated in the name of “zero“, and at some point the behaviours that it drives will be found to be unlawful.

It is also going to be interesting to see how health and safety regulators, often the champions of “zero harm” oversee its potential impacts on psychological harm in the workplace. Indeed, it would be very useful to see what risk assessments, research or other measures were taken by regulators prior to introducing “zero harm” style campaigns or messages to understand the potential effects of their interventions, or any subsequent research to understand the potential harm they may have done.

Gallifreyan_20150512223239

Comcare v Transpacific Industries

Comcare v Transpacific Industries [2015] FCA 500 is an interesting case that looks at the liability of an employer for the death of a non-employee in a motor vehicle accident. In February 2011 a Transpacific employee driving a garbage collection truck ran into a vehicle killing the driver. Subsequent investigations revealed that the truck had faulty brakes.

The case provides some very interesting insights into the “illusion of safety” where it appears that, notwithstanding regulator approval and a routine maintenance regime, the high risk of poorly maintained brakes on a garbage truck was not identified.

There is also an interesting point raised in the case about the extent to which an employer should monitor the work of an employee who has been issued a warning for safety related breaches. Should an employer monitor the employee until they are satisfied that they are working in accordance with the safety requirements?

A short video presentation about the case is available here.

You can access a copy of the case here.

Boal V BHP – Zero Tolerance: Are your “systems” commensurate to your attitudes?

I am not a fan of the language of “zero“, either as an aspiration or as a stated goal. It has never sat well with me, and seems so disconnected from day to day reality in both society and a workplace that people cannot help but become disconnected from, or dismissive of, the message behind the term. My view has always been that the language of zero actually undermines the objectives it is trying to achieve.

If you are interested in this topic (and if you are involved in safety you should be) there are far more passionate, learned and articulate critics of the language of zero than me – See for example, anything by Dr. Robert Long.

However, as a lawyer who specialises in workplace safety and health, I was very interested in a recent decision by the Fair Work Commission that demonstrates how an employers attitude of zero can be used against them.

In Mr Shannon Boal v BHP Coal Pty Ltd (U2014/5272), Mr Boal was dismissed for breaching mobile phone usage requirements when his mobile phone was found in the cabin of the truck he had been operating.

While the Fair Work Commission found that there was a valid reason to terminate Mr Boal’s employment, it found that the termination was unfair for a number of procedural reasons. In part, the Fair Work Commission relied on the level of training and information that Mr Boal had been provided about the relevant procedure.

The training documentation provided did not clearly demonstrate that employees were trained in this new procedure and signed accordingly, or that it was given a significant roll-out to employees commensurate with their ‘zero tolerance’ attitude to incidents of breaches, given how this case has been pursued (my emphasis added).

Whatever your view about zero as appropriate language for managing workplace health and safety issues, there is no doubt that it is strong, absolutist language. If you are going to frame your approach to safety in the rhetoric of zero, you need to be sure that your actions at work match the rhetoric. If you don’t, your workers will see your safety messages as nothing but “window dressing“, designed to look good but basically meaningless, and lawyers will use the term to undermine the efficacy of your systems.

More consultation on safety legislation in Western Australia

At some point, someone will make a decision, but hot on the heels of the “Green” WHS Bill seeking comment on WA’s general health and safety legislation, stakeholders are now being asked to comment on options for “modernising” health and safety laws for mining, petroleum and major hazard facilities.

To the extent that it matters, you can find out more here:

http://www.marsdenjacob.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Consultation-RIS-Resource-Safety-WebVersion.pdf

and submit comments here:

http://www.marsdenjacob.com.au/structural-reform-resources-safety-legislation-wa/

You have until the 19th of December.

If the history of harmonisation across the country is any measure, there will be a fair amount of administrative juggling within businesses and the usual parade of lawyers and safety consultants telling us that the sky is falling and we are all going to jail (no one ever has in Australia by the way!) – and then we will just get on doing what we are doing today, tomorrow.

Oh, (and again for what it is worth), Safe Work Australia’s own research (Safe Work Australia. (2013). The effectiveness of work health and safety interventions by regulators: A literature review. Canberra, ACT: Safe Work Australia) has found:

We do not know whether many of the strategies used on a regular basis by work health and safety regulators, such as introducing regulations, conducting inspections, imposing penalties for non-compliance and running industry campaigns are effective in achieving the desired policy outcome of reducing work related deaths, injuries and disease.

Seems to me to be a lot of fuss and nonsense for very little return.