National OHS Review Report Released

Michael Tooma and Alena Titterton write:

The National OHS Review Panel ‘National Review into Model Occupational Health and Safety Laws First Report’ (Report) was tabled at the Workplace Relations’ Ministers Council meeting yesterday.

The Report contains the findings and recommendations for what the National OHS Review Panel considers to be the optimal content of a model OHS Act in the following key areas:

  • duties of care (including the identification of duty holders and the scope and limits of duties); and
  • the nature and structure of offences, including defences.

Duties of Care

The Report recommends that there be a primary (general) duty of care imposed on any person who conducts a business or undertaking (whether as an employer, self-employed person, principal contractor or otherwise) for the health and safety of:

  • ‘workers’ within an expanded definition that is not limited to a contract of employment or deeming through direct engagement by contracting, referring instead to a broader ‘person who works in a business or undertaking’; and
  • others who may be put at risk to their health and safety by the conduct of the business or undertaking.

This recasting of the duty is intended to cover new working relationships beyond the traditional employer/employee relationship, circumventing the need to refer to the employment relationship.

The classes of persons singled out by the Report to be subject of duties of care under a model OHS Act include:

  • those with management or control of workplace areas;
  • designers of plant, substances and structures;
  • manufacturers of plant, substances and structures;
  • builders, erectors and installers of structures;
  • suppliers and importers of plant, substances and structures;
  • OHS service providers;
  • officers;
  • workers; and
  • other persons at the workplace.

The Report recommends that there be a statement of principles clearly stated in the OHS Model Act so that they are clearly understood. In this approach, the Report takes a leaf from the current Victorian OHS legislation.

Reasonable Practicability

In relation to reasonable practicability, the Report recommends that a defined ‘reasonably practicable’ be built into the offence in the model OHS Act which reflects the current approach taken in all jurisdictions except New South Wales and Queensland. This will be welcomed by the business community in New South Wales and Queensland who have called for a shift of the burden of proof to prosecutors for some time.

The Report takes the sensible view that defining reasonably practicable will provide guidance to duty holders in achieving legislative compliance, noting that case law is not easily accessible to duty holders. The definition is modeled on the definition in the current Victoria Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 however, provides greater clarity around the need to weigh up the various elements for doing what is reasonably practicable including:

(a) the likelihood of the hazard or risk eventuating;

(b) the degree of harm that may result if the hazard or risk eventuated;

(c) what the duty holder knows, or a person in their position ought reasonably to know, about:

(i) the hazard, the potential harm and the risk; and

(ii) ways of eliminating or reducing the hazard, the harm or the risk;

(d) the availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or reduce the hazard, the harm or the risk; and

(e) the costs associated with the available ways of eliminating or reducing the hazard, the harm or the risk, including whether the cost is grossly disproportionate to the degree of harm and the risk.

The authors are not supportive of the inclusion of the element of ‘control’ in the definition of ‘reasonably practicable’ and take the view that the definition should set out principles rather than processes. Arguably, failing to provide processes means that duty holders will still struggle to understand what it is they need to do to fulfill the duty.

The Report also suggests different qualifiers for officers, workers and other persons. In relation to officers of corporations, the recommendation is that there be a duty on officers to exercise due diligence to ensure compliance by their company, adopting an approach which is similar to that in the current Victorian legislation. The recommended casting of the officer duty is incident-focused rather than system focused and as such is reactive.

The business community will welcome the fact that the onus of proving a failure to meet the standard of due diligence will be on the prosecution under the Report’s suggested approach. The prosecution will bear the onus of proof beyond reasonable doubt on all elements of an offence. In light of the recommendations about the onus of proof in relation to reasonable practicability, there would be no defences under the model OHS Act.

The duty of ‘workers’ under the model OHS Act largely reflects the current duty which is placed on ‘employees’ throughout the jurisdictions. That is, taking reasonable care for their own health and safety and reasonable care that their acts and omissions do not adversely affect the health or safety of others.

Offences

The offences under the recommendations for the model OHS Act would be strictly criminal with the prosecution bearing the criminal standard of proof for all elements of the offence.

The Report suggests the adoption of a three-tiered approach to offences.

The Report adopts the Victorian approach of making category one offences indictable and other offences dealt with summarily. Indictable offences would be heard by a Judge and Jury (as occurs in Victoria). Indictable offences represent a departure from the position in most Australian jurisdictions.

The Report’s recommended three-tiered approach to offences can be summarised as follows:

Category

Description

Summary/Indictable

Maximum Penalty

Category 1 Most serious cases – Breach of the primary (general) duty involving recklessness or gross negligence and serious harm (fatality or serious injury) to a person or a risk of such harm. Indictable Corporation = $3 million
Individual = $600,000 Imprisonment – up to five years
Category 2 Breach of the primary (general) duty where serious harm or the risk of it without the element of recklessness or negligence.

Summary

Corporation = $1.5 million
Individual = $500,000

Category 3 Breach of the duty that does not involve serious harm or the risk of serious harm.

Summary

Corporation = $500,000
Individual = $100,000

As the table above demonstrates, maximum penalties would significantly increase if the approach recommended by the Report were adopted. Maximum penalties for the most serious OHS offences would rise to 3 million dollars for corporations; $600,000 for individuals and imprisonment for up to five years under the suggested approach. This would make OHS penalties comparable with penalties for breaches of environmental legislation in Australia. In light of the higher penalties, there are no further penalties recommended for repeat offenders.

The Report takes the view that the model OHS Act should provide a system of appeals against a finding of guilt in a prosecution with appeals ultimately to the High Court of Australia. Such an appeal process will be welcomed.

Concluding Thoughts

On the whole, the methodology adopted in the Report represents picking the preferable provision from existing legislation rather than approaching the challenge of what a model OHS Act should look like with a blank canvass. If there is a jurisdiction which the recommended model most closely resembles, it is clearly Victoria. The report was officially endorsed by COAG members. However, it remains to be seen whether it will in fact be adopted.

The National OHS Review Panel’s second report is due to be provided to the Workplace Relations Ministers at the end of January 2009.

To view the Report, click here.

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One Response

  1. […] to the Australian Government yesterday. The best initial assessment of the report can be found at a safety blog operated by Deacons law firm.  In that report by Michael Tooma and Alena Titterton, the following […]

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