Australia puts more teeth into workplace health and safety

Negligence now included as fault element to most serious WHS offence

Australia puts more teeth into workplace health and safety

The Australian government passed on Thursday amendments to the country's Work Health and Safety Act that make it easier to penalise negligent employers who put staff in health risks.

Under the Work Health and Safety Amendment Bill 2023, negligence will now be included as a fault element in relation to a category one offence.

A category offence, dubbed as the most serious category, involves a duty holder who "engages in conduct that recklessly exposes a person to a risk of death or serious injury or illness," according to Safe Work Australia.

Including negligence as a fault element to this category lowers the bar for conviction, according to Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke.

"That means both reckless and grossly negligent employers can now face the most serious consequences and penalties," he said in a media release.

Use of insurance barred

Meanwhile, the law also prohibits employers to use their insurance to cover penalties incurred for WHS fines. This will ensure that fines will be a "proper deterrent" instead of just another cost of doing business, said Burke.

"No longer will a penalty just be another line on a balance sheet that a negligent employer can recover from their insurer, while a family has lost a loved one in a workplace fatality," the minister added.

The passing of the Work Health and Safety Amendment Bill 2023 comes as 18 workers have been killed in the first two months of this year, while 169 workers were fatally injured at work, according to Burke.

"Each of these deaths is a tragedy. Each of these deaths represents a family member who will never come home, a friend or co-worker lost forever. But workplace deaths are preventable," the minister said.

Engineered stone ban

The amendments to the country's WHS law also follows the recent agreement by states and territories to consider a ban on dangerous engineered stone.

The product, widely used in kitchen and bathroom benchtops, has been found to put at risk over 100,000 workers to fatal lung disease silicosis because of exposure, according to a study commissioned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Safe Work Australia has now commenced public consultation on the ban for the dangerous engineered stone.

"I encourage all stakeholders to go to Safe Work Australia’s consultation website Engage to take part and have your say on a prohibition on the use of engineered stone," said Safe Work Australia CEO Michelle Baxter.

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