The Victorian government unveiled the laws in October last year and passed them over opposition from industry groups, who argued they would disproportionately hurt small businesses, but they will come into effect on Wednesday.
The Master Builders Association of Victoria has written to the government to express its concerns about the manslaughter laws, arguing it will put extra demands on businesses already grappling with the coronavirus.
Employers, including company directors, who fail to take reasonable steps to fix very dangerous situations for their employees that then kill someone, will face the new penalties.
Samantha Burns, whose brother Shaun Burns died when a crane dropped a tub of concrete on him as he worked at a construction site in Melbourne in 2018, said being consulted over the new laws was the only constructive thing to come out of her brother’s death.
“It was horrific,” Ms Burns said, adding she hoped the new laws would be coupled with stepped-up enforcement from the regulator and force employers to make work sites safer.
WorkSafe is pursuing the crane company and builder through the courts, but Ms Burns said she felt any fines that would result would be “relatively small” under the current regime. Michael Clark, director of the crane company Clark Cranes, said his firm was working with the regulator and sent his “deepest condolences” to Mr Burns’ family.
“Clark Cranes welcomes all measures adopted to strengthen workplace safety laws,” Mr Clark said.
WorkSafe Victoria chief executive Colin Radford said he hoped the new laws would act as a deterrent to companies tempted to cut corners on safety.
“The threat of jail for individuals, or a hefty fine for organisations, should stop those who think it’s OK to put other priorities above the health and safety of their workers in their tracks,” Mr Radford said.
Victoria’s move comes as the states and territories put in place a stricter standard for silica dust, which can be released when manufactured stone benchtops are cut to size and can cause a deadly and painful lung disease.
Cases of silicosis have been rising in recent years, prompting the crackdown, although Victoria has already recommended a more stringent standard.
“The Government strongly supports these new standards, which will significantly reduce the incidence of silicosis and help to keep Australian workers, their families and the community safe,” federal Attorney-General Christian Porter said.
Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.