Building and farming lobby groups in Victoria have hit out at new laws which could see bosses whose negligence causes worker deaths jailed for twenty years, saying that the new laws should apply equally to employees as well as employers.

New laws passed in Victoria last week will see the creation of a new offence of industrial manslaughter under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.

Under the new law, employers whose negligence causes a workplace fatality will face fines of up to $16.5 million whilst individuals could face jail times of up to twenty years.

The new offence applies to employers, self-employed people and ‘officers’ of companies.

The legislation will also apply when an employer’s negligent conduct causes the death of a member of the public.

But the new law has been slammed by employer groups, who say the new offense should apply to all parties in a workplace rather than simply employers.

In a joint statement, representatives from the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, the Victorian Farmers Federation, the Housing Industry Association and the Master Builders Association expressed disappointment that this was not the outcome.

“Employers have worked hard with the Government, opposition and cross bench, trying to ensure that the workplace manslaughter law is fair and equitable and delivers improved workplace safety outcomes,” the statement read.

“We proposed sound and workable improvements to the legislation that would have enhanced safety outcomes and fairness.

“We are disappointed that no amendments were adopted by the Parliament.”

In a written response to questions from Sourceable, Rebecca Casson, CEO, Master Builders Victoria acknowledged that there are differences in duties owed between employers and individual employees.

Nevertheless, she says the existing law makes clear that responsibility for safe outcomes is shared among all workplace participants.

Existing provisions within the OHS Act for reckless endangerment, for instance, apply to everyone and make clear that all workforce participants have responsibilities to exercise care In their own actions, omissions and decisions.

Industrial manslaughter in the Northern Territory, she adds, applies to everyone.

Speaking of the new Victorian offence, Casson says its application to employers only creates problems.

At a practical level, it could pave the way for diligent employers to be held legally responsible for the criminal negligence of rogue employees.

More fundamentally, by breaking away from the principal of shared responsibilities, Casson said the new offence could facilitate an ‘us and them’ culture and hinder a collaborative approach toward safety outcomes.

“A safe worksite can only be delivered when everybody contributes,” Casson said.

“We believe that workplace safety is everyone’s responsibility,” Casson said.

“Everybody. Every workplace. Every day.”

The Victorian Framers Federation expressed disappointment both that the new offence was not extended to employees and that VFF recommendations to exempt family businesses in cases where the killed worker in question is a family member were not adopted.