When a worker was killed on a building site in the UK, the company was fined £2.6 million early this year under tough new UK laws, but if the same worker had died in Australia, the fine may have been just $170,000.

The UK government believes heavier health and safety penalties can reduce fatalities and injuries. A new penalty system for health and safety violations has been implemented in the UK since February of this year. This new UK law hinges the safety and health fine on the turnover of the company. For companies with turnover of £50 million or more, the fine could be up to £10 million. As an example, Balfour Beatty, an international infrastructure company based in the UK, was fined £3.5 million this year.

Not only are the fines heavier, but directors of negligent companies can be given custodial sentences or imprisonment, with sentences staring at 26 weeks. According to Halen Devery, a partner and head of health and safety at insurance and risk law specialist BLM, about 38 per cent of the health and safety fines issued in 2016 were from the construction industry. Construction companies in the UK paid nearly £8 million since the implementation of the new sentencing guidelines. The UK construction industry sees the new law as a game changer, setting a new standard of construction safety and health.

The change in the UK prompts us to think about whether Australia has done enough in enforcing workplace health and safety. Every year in Australia, more than 190 people die and over 60,000 people are hurt at work, with construction being the nation’s third top killer. Australia’s construction fatal injury rate is 1.5 times higher than the UK’s, and Australia’s workplace death rate is 3.5 times higher. Australia is no safer than the UK when it comes to workplace deaths, but our laws to protect workers are now much weaker than the UK, especially after the UK recently brought in much tougher fines.

While only time will tell whether heavier fines and imprisonment for health and safety violations can reduce the number of workplace injuries and fatalities, the idea of linking the penalty to turnover of the company is worth considering by the Australian government. Most of the time, safety and health penalties are so negligible as to mean nothing to large companies.

However, it is another story when the penalty for injuries is linked to the turnover of the company. The amount then becomes so significant that it can possibly turn the company’s net profit into to a net loss. The company has to dig deep to pay for the penalty. Shareholders can feel the effects and they will pressure senior management to pay serious attention to workplace health and safety. The potential imprisonment of negligent senior management would also bring about a top down change in the importance of safety.

The recent deaths in Eagle Farm Racecourse in Queensland, where two workers were killed when a concrete slab fell on them in a pit, urge us to think about the current law protection for the health and safety of workers and penalty imposed on employers in Queensland and Australia. It is hard to anticipate whether more stringent laws, like the one in the UK, can effectively enforce workplace safety and health in construction in Australia, but it is worthy of discussion.

Should the Australian government deem tougher health and safety penalties for workplace injuries a necessary step in bringing down the injury figures, the UK new sentencing guideline would be a good reference to start with.

  • Dear Dr. Carol, this article is very interesting, as instead the construction companies gain profit, they should push harder to compensate the shortage of their budget. Amazing idea to pay more attention for health and safety in construction industry.
    Good lock for future works
    Evan A.

  • Carol article this is most timely. Australia has almost nil enforcement across the building and construction industry,and in the safety space it is no different. For the very few cases each year where there are penalties, these are paltry and have no effect in terms of deterring offenders. In addition, as in the recent Melbourne case and the latest case in Perth demonstrate, the Directors have not been charged – but rather a sign writer and a supervisor. Whilst there are no consequences for routinely breaching OH&S laws, there is no deterrence to operate lawfully. And Australia's reputation is notoriously woeful. A close examination reveals that construction workers have a very high risk of injury and death – one that is totally unacceptable. Business is the main focus and the lives of workers, especially the high rate of serious injuries and the significant number of deaths in construction are ignored as irrelevant.

    • Hi Anne, Totally agree with you. Even though every company would say safety is important but as some accidents revealed the true priority of safety is not there.

  • Hi Dr Hon,
    Thank you for this piece. Making international comparisons is difficult because, for example, not all countries have the same criteria. I think the UK does not include deaths linked to driving vehicles, whether they are work-related or not, but Australia does. Australia also includes pedestrians/bystanders. Also comparisons must be done with rates. Mentioning absolute numbers such as the 190/year is not very helpful, if more or less work was actually done.
    I agree with you in discrepancy in fines being a problem, with Australia way behind. Linking penalties to revenue/turnover however could be problematic: government here (Australia) notoriously has problems getting firms to pay adequate tax, let alone figuring out what revenue value would fairly represent a fine! Its a great idea in theory, but not sure how the practicalities of it would work.
    Thanks for the article!

  • In Australia most States are covered by the National. WHS Act 2011. There are severe penalties for unsafe acts and the he penalties are seen in three sections. Category 1 under Div5 Section 30 states a penalty of 300K or 5 years or both, or 600K or 5 years or both;
    Section 32 states as a penalty three finite penalties 150K or 300K,
    And Section 33 shows three finite penalties of 50K, 100K or 500K

    if there is a death, it is une Section 31. And the prison term is under the Federal Crimes Act, which means no parole, no time off for good behaviour, they must serve a full 5 years and no time spent in remand taken into consideration. That is a maximum term under the Act, so a magistrate can shorten the length of sentence.
    With what has happened recently at Dreamworld and the unfortunate incidents in Perth and Brisbane, which seems to point towards fault by the PCBU, these may hopefully end up in court and sentences handed out with a maximum fine.

  • I did forget to mention that the maximum finite penalty is 3,000,000, under Section 1.

    • Hi Greg,
      Thanks for providing the information for the readers' benefit. Much appreciated.

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