By Brigitta Polous

Workplace Health and Safety laws are no laughing matter, meeting your obligations can mean the difference between life and death. In a grave reminder of the consequences of failing to comply with WHS obligations, a Queensland-based business owner has recently been sentenced to serve five years in prison for industrial manslaughter. The defendant, the owner of a small generator-servicing business, has become the first person in the state to serve jail time since the enactment of Queensland’s industrial manslaughter laws five years ago.

In this article, I explain the facts of this case, its key implications, and the severe consequences employers can face if they’re found to be liable.

The cold-hard facts of the case

The defendant was operating a forklift without a licence, assisted voluntarily by his friend, the victim. In a devastating accident, the victim was fatally injured after being struck by a load which had slipped off the forklift. The findings of a WHS investigation showed that not only was the defendant operating the forklift unlicensed but was also operating the forklift beyond its weight capacity and in the absence of adequate safety systems or controls.

The outcome: key implications

Two key implications can be drawn from the case above. Firstly, business owners should not assume that just because a person is not an employee or contractor, they won’t be a worker for WHS purposes. Here, despite being a volunteer, the victim was found to come within the broad scope of a worker under the relevant legislation. Therefore, business owners should be aware that they still owe safety obligations to persons who are participating in the business voluntarily.

The second point to be aware of is the lack of financial resources for an advanced safety system did not negate either the defendant’s duty or sentence. While it was agreed that the defendant did lack the financial resources for such a system, that didn’t explain his negligence in failing to establish basic efficient and inexpensive safety measures that could’ve prevented the tragic accident from occurring. This reinforces the message that businesses need to actively ensure they’re complying with their duty to ensure the safety of persons in the workplace.

Businesses should also bear in mind that, whether operating a business as a corporate PCBU (person conducting a business or undertaking) or an individual PCBU, an individual can still be prosecuted for industrial manslaughter.

How HR Assured can help?

No matter where your people work from, it’s imperative that their health, safety, and well-being are your priority. If you’re unsure about WHS or you think it’s time to review your internal practices, we’d like to offer your business a complimentary WHS Health Check valued at over $750. To arrange this, contact us here.

Brigitta Poulos is a Workplace Relations Advisor at HR Assured who loves helping clients and businesses achieve excellent workplace compliance with their obligations and duties, and interpretation of relevant employment legislation and awards. She particularly enjoys researching and explaining new or ‘hot’ topics in the workplace relations and human resources fields to our clients.