Qantas is planning a $680,000 overhaul of its workplace safety procedures in response to a staff injury at Canberra Airport.
A contractor from Star Aviation was cleaning an aircraft in 2014 when he fell backwards from a service door and fell 1.5 metres onto a concrete floor at Canberra Airport, sustaining injuries to his spine.
After investigating the incident, WorkSafe ACT alleged the airline had breached its duty of care under the Work Health and Safety Act, Fairfax Media reported.
This decision has resulted in Qantas entering into an enforceable undertaking with WorkSafe ACT to improve its safety practices.
The aviation giant will spend $680,000 to beef up workplace safety policies and procedures, including the purchase of new “fall from heights” infrastructure for its ACT operations.
Falls are a major cause of death and serious injury in Australian workplaces, and 29 workers died following a fall from heights in 2010 – 2011, according to data from Safe Work Australia.
In the same year, 7730 claims for serious injury were lodged due to a fall from height, meaning that 21 employees per day lodged a claim for a falls-related injury that required one or more weeks off work, Safe Work Australia stated in a 2013 report.
The cost to employers can be immense, as injuries range in severity and injured employees may also be absent from work for lengthy periods of time.
Breaches of the duty of care by persons conducting a business or undertaking also attract significant penalties, says Michael Tooma, Partner at Norton Rose Fulbright and Head of Occupational, Health, Safety and Security for the firm’s Australia practice.
“In serious cases the penalty is as high as $3m with the potential for personal liability of officers of that company of up to $600K and/or 5 years imprisonment,” Tooma told HC Online.
In addition, Tooma says injured workers are also entitled to workers compensation from their employer and may make further claims against other parties involved in the accident.
He says companies should also consider the reputational ramifications associated with such workplace accidents which can negatively impact the business’ ability to attract customer and future staff.
“If these issues are not handled well the reputational impact can be very costly. You will be judged in the Court of public opinion long before you set foot in a court of law,” Tooma says.
As part of the enforceable undertaking – a legally binding agreement often used as an alternative to court action –Qantas will donate $70,000 to the Snowy Hydro Southcare rescue helicopter.
Qantas has said it will develop an injury and hazard reporting app, complete a university research project related to contractor safety management and standardize workplace induction processes across the entire group, Fairfax Media reported.
Enforceable undertakings are basically an agreement with the regulator that in exchange for an initiative, they will not prosecute for a breach of the Act, Tooma says.
“It usually is aimed at addressing the underlying issue that led to the incident but also includes a community based initiative such as a donation to a charitable cause,” he says.
These agreements often have multiple benefits, as organisations can spend money on productive uses instead of hefty legal fees.
“This usually results in good publicity for them, focused on the improvements made and initiative introduced as part of the enforceable undertaking,” Tooma says.
ACT WorkSafe Commissioner Mark McCabe has commended Qantas’s decision to accept the agreement.
"The great thing about Qantas agreeing to enter into this enforceable undertaking is that rather than go through lengthy court action, they're investing a fair bit of money into health and safety and that's a far better outcome than spending it on lawyers, which is where quite a bit of the money goes," McCabe told Fairfax Media.
Tooma says HR professionals have an important role in ensuring incidents are effectively investigated to identify understand the systemic issues and conditions that permitted them to occur.
Any serious incident will also attract the attention of regulators, as has been the case with the fall of the Qantas cleaning contractor.
“Serious incidents are reportable to the regulator and are almost always investigated by them,” Tooma says.
HR professionals need to be aware that the key through this process is to cooperate with the regulator while showing that you are on top of the issues such that they don’t need to “throw the book at you”, he says.
McCabe said the three key aspects of enforceable undertakings meant Qantas’s improvements should benefit the airline’s workers, the aviation industry as a whole and the broader community.
"We think this is an excellent example of a good corporate citizen,” McCabe said.
“Yes, a person was injured but they have improved health and safety and are doing something for the broader community."
A Qantas spokeswoman told Fairfax Media that the airline has implemented various safety measures directly after the accident to ensure similar incidents didn’t reoccur.
"At Qantas, safety is always our first priority and we are committed to ensuring that our workplaces are safe at all times,” the spokeswoman said.