Workplace Safety Legislation Amendment (Workplace Manslaughter and Other Matters) Bill 2019

November 14, 2019

I am pleased to make a contribution on the Workplace Safety Legislation Amendment (Workplace Manslaughter and Other Matters) Bill 2019. This bill amends the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 to establish a new penalty for the criminal offence of workplace manslaughter. I will not speak for long because I know others want to contribute, but I have given considerable time to reflect on this bill. I have listened to many of the contributions that have been made, and I reflect on the community that I come from and the high number of workplace incidents that have been brought to my attention over the years. We live in a community where there are many food processing factories. We are an agricultural community. We grow a lot of fruit and vegetables. There is dairying, milk production—all those things. Because we value-add to those products, we do have a lot of factories. Listening to the news I have heard of many tragic deaths, often of young people and in circumstances that were preventable. I think of a young man who was working a forklift in a coolroom, but the doors were shut so he died of carbon monoxide poisoning—something that was preventable. I think about the young woman who was effectively scalped by her hair being caught in a machine and being rushed to hospital. People’s lives have been changed forever by incidents like that. More recently—and I refer to a death in relation to a farm in my region—a Victorian farming company was fined almost $500 000 for major safety violations that contributed to the tragic death of a 15‑year‑old boy. It is the circumstances that are the relevant thing here. WorkSafe Victoria prosecutors said three young teenagers were taken by a labour-hire person to work picking snow peas on a farm, but left on the farm was a forklift with the keys in it. The three young boys were unsupervised. Inevitably one of them decided to go rogue, hopped on the forklift and was driving it around at speed, and ultimately it turned over and he was killed. The two other young boys had to witness that terrible circumstance. These are things that happen on farms so easily. There was another case at a factory in Shepparton where a woman was seriously injured, again as a result of a forklift. The workplace was not properly set up for the driving of a forklift with an attachment on it, and it was carrying a large pipe in the factory. The injuries that this woman has suffered, to her face, to her eye socket, will live with her forever. The company was fined heavily, and that was the outcome of the case. But the magistrate in that case said: The risk associated with this operation and operation of the forklift in these circumstances in my view is obvious … these injuries should never have occurred in the workplace. The magistrate went on to acknowledge that the company has since implemented a workplace management plan that effectively ensures that such an accident will not occur again, so the employer is now called a model employer, but at what cost to this woman who was injured before that change in the workplace occurred? 

I would like to refer to the fact that the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry were a part of the implementation task force. They had concerns about the exclusion of employees from the legislation. That, too, troubles me to some extent, but not to the extent that I am prepared to oppose the bill; I think some of these things take time to work out. Again, referring to the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF), they have called for an exemption for family farms. The grounds for the exemption is the suffering families will endure with the loss of a family member, and they think it would not be appropriate or in the public interest to prosecute another family member. So many accidents occur on farms—family farms. There are very few family farms, dare I say, that do not employ people as well. It is not just the family members that are there. In a dairy there generally will be people employed. It is the same on most farms that grow produce, and of course in the Goulburn Valley, when tomato picking or other fruit picking is taking place, there are many employees on the property, and the risks are great. I do not believe that that exemption should apply. I think that farmers absolutely need more education, and the VFF wants to see included in the legislation that there be much more safety education. I think we have a lot of safety education out there. I for one feel like I stop dead when I see on television an advertisement about rollovers. There are farmers on their quad bikes or whatever and they roll over, and instant death takes place. These are very powerful ads. The other powerful advertisement that I have seen, and that I think has probably had quite an impact on our community, is the WorkSafe one about the father pictured coming home from work. No-one should go to work and expect to die at work. That risk should be eliminated as much as it possibly can be. Putting in a high standard to me is really important because when these sorts of incidents that I have talked about happen, they have subsequently been seen to be so easily fixable. The circumstance was subsequently fixed and accidents such as these would not happen again. There is clearly a need for much more oversight within factories and work circumstances to deal with these sorts of unsafe work practices in the beginning, but to exempt a range of people from them is not what I see as a solution. Stats from Safe Work Australia reveal that there were 144 workplace deaths in Australia during 2018, and of the industries most affected, the transport, postal and warehousing industries had the most deaths, with 38. Farms, which fall under agriculture, forestry and fishing, had 37 deaths, so not very far behind. I think it is really salutary to think about the sorts of circumstances that are out there that we commonly hear about. To some extent I am guided by the fact in making the decision I have to support this legislation that I have often been in a car listening to the news and I have heard what the penalty is—a money penalty—for a death in circumstances where my instant reaction was that someone was responsible for that. If that circumstance exists, I think then that person ought to be made to take responsibility, so I support the bill.

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