A damning review of the Northern Territory’s workplace health and safety practices has called for tougher penalties to curb its horrific rate of workplace deaths.
- NT WorkSafe inspectors believe their relationship with the coroner’s office has deteriorated, report finds
- The skills of NT WorkSafe personnel need upgrading, it finds
- It also says NT WorkSafe needs to ensure it continues to be perceived as being free from political interference
Even though the NT has the highest rate of workplace deaths per capita in the country, with a tradesman killed just last month at Tennant Creek fire station, no-one has been sent to prison under its current workplace health and safety laws.
An independent review into workplace health and safety best practice in the Territory has now recommended it introduce industrial manslaughter laws, which have long been lobbied for by unions and lawyers.
Review author Tim Lyons said these should carry the same maximum custodial sentence as manslaughter under the criminal code — which is life imprisonment — or a fine of $10 million for a body corporate.
These laws were introduced into the ACT in 2003 and in Queensland in 2017, carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years’ jail for an individual or $10 million for a body corporate.
Currently, the most serious charge NT WorkSafe is able to bring under its laws is reckless conduct, a “category one offence”, which carries a maximum penalty of five years’ jail for an individual.
But this has never been successfully prosecuted in the Territory, and in fact has only been successfully prosecuted once nationally.
More frequently NT WorkSafe opts for an “enforceable undertaking”, described as a “alternative to prosecution” that requires an employer to carry out specific activities.
Mr Lyons now wants to see a law change that would require judicial oversight and approval for enforceable undertakings for circumstances involving a fatality.
He also described specific circumstances when they should be denied; for example, if the applicant has a recent prior conviction related to a workplace death.
“NT WorkSafe places insufficient emphasis on prosecutions and other ‘hard’ compliance,” Mr Lyons stated.
He said unions wanted NT WorkSafe banned from accepting an enforceable undertaking in cases where a person had died.
However, he said employers believed NT WorkSafe should use enforceable undertakings when circumstances allowed, but only in consultation with family in cases where a person has died.
‘There is a need to upgrade the skills’
Among the 27 recommendations Mr Lyons made in the review was that the skills of NT WorkSafe personnel to be upgraded.
In his opinion, the Northern Territory’s workplace health and safety inspectors required a diploma, up from the current certificate four qualification level.
He said that would bring them up to a level in line with the leading regulators, such as those in the United Kingdom.
He also said inspector should have industry-specific experience, and specialist inspectors should be considered in high-risk sectors such as mining and construction.
“There is a need to upgrade the skills of the inspectorate in relation to both general compliance work and investigations, and to improve the system the inspectors rely on to be effective,” Mr Lyons said.
“For example, many inspectors complained of having no, or at least inadequate, initial training and also of being unable to attend relevant vocational courses.
“NT WorkSafe’s lack of consistency in training would seem to have a direct impact on the consistency of its investigations.”
NT WorkSafe should also consider tapping into expertise from the NT Police’s Major Crime Unit, and a Complex Investigations Unit should be established, Mr Lyons said.
Regulator must remain free from political interference
The report said some NT WorkSafe inspectors believed their relationship with the NT Coroner’s office had deteriorated recently, because of its failure to prosecute some cases.
The coroner’s office has been contacted for comment.
It also said there was a need to ensure the workplace health and safety regulator, NT WorkSafe, was perceived as being independent and free from political interference.
“While there is no evidence of regulatory capture, or of political interference in prosecutions or other regulatory decisions, there is a need to ensure that the reality and perception of independence is maintained, and delineation of functions is clear,” he said.
Attorney-General Natasha Fyles will speak on the review later today.
Maurice Blackburn lawyers and Unions NT have also been contacted and are expected to comment later today.
Topics: workplace, accidents, disasters-and-accidents, work, community-and-society, laws, law-crime-and-justice, government-and-politics, nt, darwin-0800, tennant-creek-0860, alice-springs-0870, katherine-0850