$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?

New guidance material for lifting and related operations

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Effective from 7 December 2015, Safe Work Australia has published 10 guides and information sheets on managing the risks associated with inspecting, maintaining and operating cranes, and plant that can be used as a crane and quick hitches for earthmoving machinery. This move is part of an agreement by SWA members in 2014 to replace the draft model WHS Code of Practice for cranes with guidance material.

You can access the SWA “cranes guidance material” page HERE.

This approach does create some interesting jurisdictional issues. For example, New South Wales which operates under the WHS legislation has an approved code of practice for managing the risks of falls at a workplace – which means it has a specific legislative standing, different from guidance material. This code of practice includes a section on “work boxes“, but it has different information from the material set out in the SWA guide on “crane lifted work boxes“.

For example, the SWA guide states that work boxes should:

  • have sides not less than 1 metre high;
  • have fall-arrest anchorage points;
  • be correctly tagged;
  • have lifting slings supplied to be attached to the lifting points by hammerlocks or moused shackles;
  • have a safety factor for each suspension sling of at least eight for chains and 10 for wire rope; and
  • where provided, a door is to be inward opening only and self-closing with a latch to prevent unintentional opening.

However, none of these points are mentioned in the approved code of practice.

A common failing of safety management systems is the level of internal inconsistency that develops as layers of safety management processor built up over time. It seems that the regulator is not immune from this problem.

 

Managing contractor safety and health: AOG 2015

A (very) belated Merry Christmas and happy New Year to those of you who follow this blog.

If 2014 was a busy year, 2015 does not look like slowing down at all.

So first, let me offer my apologies for not posting any presentations recently. However, there have been some interesting cases around unfair dismissals for safety breaches and a recent case demonstrating that a principal can rely on a contractor’s expertise in the delivery of services (BlueScope Steel Ltd v Cartwright [2015] NSWCA 25), and I will be posting video presentations around these cases in the next fortnight.

I also wanted to let people know that I will be presenting a keynote speech at the Australasian Oil & Gas conference in Perth on 11 March looking at the issue of contractor safety Management (click here for details). You can find an article about the presentation here.

I will be around for the entire conference and if anybody is interested in catching up for a coffee, a drink or a conversation (or a combination of the above) you will find me at the Lawstream exhibition (click here for details).

Best regards.

Greg Smith.

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.

World Safety Organisation Educational Award

Some time ago I posted about the publication of my new book, Contractor Safety Management (see link).

Today, I am very proud to announce that the book has been awarded the Educational Award for 2014 by the World Safety Organisation (www.worldsafety.org).

The nomination criteria for the Award is:

Institution, company, training entity, individual, etc., with an above-average program of educational nature in the fields of environmental/occupational safety and health, fire science and safety, public safety, healthcare safety, transportation safety, or similar programs; actively (and above average in) contributing to the protection of people, property, resources and the environment through innovative programs; with distinctive concern for the education of professionals and general public in the disciplines of safety and allied fields.

Once again my sincere thanks to all of the contributors to the book, and especially to Dr Janis Janz for nominating the book (and all of the work that was done to produce it) for the award.

Contractor safety management book

Contractor Safety Management: Waco Kwikform Ltd v Perigo

A recent NSW Court of Appeal decision has examined the very interesting (and vexed ) issue of how the actions of a Principal can create liability, by taking over responsibility for a Contractor’s safety system of work.

In Waco Kwikform Ltd v Perigo and Workers Compensation Nominal Insurer [2014] NSWCA 140, the Court found, in part, that by developing a Safety Work Method Statement, Waco had taken primary responsibility for the safe system of work out of the contractor’s hands.

You can see a video presentation about the case by clicking here.

And apologies, but there has been a little bit of a glitch in the sound quality – there is sound but you might need to turn it up.

I also need to let you know that there is a new app available to make watching these video updates easier. You can find it by clicking here.

The app will allow you to watch the presentation, or download it so you can watch it offline later.

Best Regards.

One Christmas present arrived early: My new book

After what has been a terrible day with technology and online frustration, a parcel has just arrived with my new book on Contractor Safety Management.

Book 1

Heartfelt thanks to all of the contributing authors who made this possible:

  • Fiona Murfitt
  • Olga Klimczak
  • Sarina M. Maneotis
  • Dr Janis Janz
  • Pat Gilroy AM
  • Dr Elias Choueiri
  • Tristan Casey
  • Dr Autumn Krauss

So, with the day looking a little brighter, it is time to grab the team and open some cold drinks.

Merry Christmas to all of you who have followed the blog this year. Thank you for all of your support, and all the best for 2014.