Published: 15 April 2019
Author: Stringer Clark

Workplace fatalities - it’s time to protect the whistleblowers

Protecting those workers who blow the whistle on dangerous workplaces is key to tackling the rate of workplace deaths. This blog explains what protections are available to protect those workers who draw attention to bad practices and faulty equipment.

The tragic death of Christopher Cassaniti, an 18-year-old apprentice, in a scaffolding accident in Sydney on 7 April 2019 marks the fifth death in Australian workplaces in 2019.

While the family of this young man come to terms with his death, it has raised questions about how and why industrial deaths like this are still occurring when occupational health and safety is meant to be front and centre at all worksites. Despite construction site injuries and deaths regularly being reported in the media, WorkSafe studies have shown that construction is not the worst industry for workplace deaths.

A study completed of all work-place traumatic fatalities from the period 2012 to 2016 showed Agriculture, Forestry & Fishing, Transport, Postal & Warehousing and Mining to be the most dangerous industries, with rates of deaths per 100,000 workers standing at 16.4, 8.2 and 3.6 on average respectively.

While WorkSafe inspectors have an important job to do, it’s doubly important to protect those workers who have the courage to report dangerous work practices - sometimes in the fact of active employer hostility.

WorkSafe can inspect AND prosecute

WorkSafe is the organisation responsible for the administration and enforcement of Victoria’s occupational health and safety laws.

One of the most important powers of WorkSafe is to attend workplaces and assess risks or safety hazards, and then work with and support the employer to rectify these. As well as aiming to actively prevent injuries from occurring at work, WorkSafe also has an important role in investigating workplace injuries and deaths and determining if the employer has breached their duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.

Should WorkSafe determine that these breaches have occurred, they are capable of commencing a criminal prosecution against an individual or company, and potential penalties should the breaches be proven include convictions against the company, award of legal costs and payment of monetary fines which can extend into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

These prosecutions not only ensure that negligent employers are held to account for their unsafe work practices, but also provides important standards as to what is considered an unsafe work practice.

It’s illegal to intimidate safety whistleblowers

Everyday workers often play an important role in reporting unsafe or illegal work practices.

Unfortunately, some employers will threaten or take steps to terminate a worker’s employment as retribution for them speaking out or refusing to partake in unsafe work practices.

Such discriminatory actions by the employer can be in breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 and can be grounds for WorkSafe to bring a prosecution against the employer which, if successful, can lead to the imposition of hefty fines.

RCT Law often advises workers who are reluctant to lodge a WorkCover claim, out of fear that they may be terminated as a result.

It is unlawful for an employer to sack a worker because they lodged a WorkCover claim. It could lead to an unfair dismissal action or even the employer being prosecuted, and fines being imposed.

If you think you are at risk of being terminated due having lodged a WorkCover claim, or want to clarify your rights in relation to this, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible, as strict time limits can apply.

Stringer Clark has advocated for thousands of workers. If you would like to speak with one of our experienced WorkCover solicitors for an obligation and cost-free appointment at one of our local offices in regional Victoria, please call us today on 1800 641 743.

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