Employers found liable for industrial manslaughter could face up to 20 years in jail under tough new negligence laws to come into operation in NSW in 2024.

New industrial manslaughter laws following worksite deaths

NSW Industrial Relations Minister Sophie Cotsis has said she will bring in new industrial manslaughter laws which will significantly increase penalties for negligent employers.

The move comes after 263 workers died on worksites between 2017 and 2022. In 2023, 41 workers died doing their job in the first six months of the year.

"The new laws will carry a clear and strong message. Every life in every workplace matters," Minister Cotsis said. (Please see Industrial manslaughter law to be introduced in NSW, NSW Government, 19 October 2023.)

NSW lags behind other states on industrial manslaughter laws

New South Wales is only now catching up to other states which already have much heavier penalties for negligent employers.

Currently in NSW, employers who expose their workers to the risk of death through what is defined as gross negligence face a maximum of five years in jail and fines of up to $3.7 million. That's because unlike other states, NSW does not treat worker deaths as manslaughter.

In Victoria a person found guilty of workplace manslaughter can be fined up to $16.5 million and sentenced to up to 20 years in jail. Queensland has much the same penalty. The NSW government is finally bringing the state into line with other states.

Current NSW laws seriously defective in protecting workers

The introduction of the new laws follows the terrible case of 18-year-old Christopher Cassaniti, who died in 2019 when scaffolding collapsed at a building site in Sydney's Macquarie Park. The structure was holding 17,905kg but was designed to hold only 675kg. (Please see Scaffolding company fined $2 million for 'catastrophic' collapse that killed teen apprentice, ABC News, 25 November 2022.)

The company was warned several times that the site was dangerous. A judge found the scaffolding was grossly overloaded and fined the company $2 million. The director was disqualified from operating for 10 years. It was the biggest ever workplace health and safety fine. (Please see SafeWork NSW v Synergy Scaffolding Services Pty Ltd [2022] NSWDC 584.)

These events demonstrated that the current law in NSW is seriously defective as a means of protecting workers and ensuring employers pay proper attention to workplace safety.

The tougher laws the government is promising will need to be watertight to prevent employers dodging their responsibilities.

There have been numerous deaths on building sites in recent years; many of them young men who fell on construction sites. These accidents are almost all preventable, so improvement of workplace safety is urgent.

Geoff Baldwin

Directors' duties and legal obligations

Stacks Champion

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