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News 31 July 2020

Workplace Safety Minister threatens jail time for employers who put staff at risk of COVID-19

Victoria’s Workplace Safety Minister Jill Hennessy has said negligent employers whose staff are infected and die from COVID-19 could go to jail and face millions in fines.

Reported by the Herald Sun on 31 July, Victoria’s Workplace Safety Minister Jill Hennessy has said that under the state’s new workplace manslaughter laws, employers that do not take the appropriate steps to protect their staff from COVID-19, which results in the infection and death of their staff, could face the maximum penalties of up to 20 years jail and $16.5 million in fines.

Jill Hennessy told the Herald Sun “our workplace manslaughter laws mean that employers who negligently breach their duties, causing the death of their workers, can be prosecuted and potentially go to jail.”

As to whether it is legally possible to be convicted under the Workplace Manslaughter Laws, it is possible. However, Victoria’s new Workplace Manslaughter laws do not set out any new duties on an employer, neither do they discuss the current COVID-19 pandemic.

On July 1, new workplace manslaughter laws came into effect which hold an employer or legal entity (as defined by the Commonwealth Corporations Act 2001) to a much higher degree of liability in the occurrence of a death in the workplace. To determine whether a business has performed ‘negligent conduct’ is defined as a ‘great falling short’ of reasonable care.

According to WorkSafe Victoria, close to 600 workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or a COVID-19-related condition (i.e. mental health) have stopped work or moved to reduced hours since March and of these, 263 have since successfully returned to work while 302 remain off work, 258 of which have a current work capacity.

This latest threat from the Workplace Safety Minister comes as the Victorian Government continues to battle the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, following outbreaks at meat-processing plants, aged care facilities and education facilities.

Already, employers must follow the Victorian Government rules which include having a COVID-19 plan, safe distancing (keeping people 1.5 metres apart and the 4 square metre rules) and the wearing of face masks or other coverings in the workplace.

In a further effort to stymie workplace transmissions, the state government also announced yet another support for workers – the $300 Test Isolation Payment – designed to encourage workers to stay at home while awaiting a COVID-19 test result.

As the number of coronavirus cases in Victoria continues to remain stubbornly high, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has continued to urge all workers and employers to work from home if they are able to do so, and to get tested if any symptoms are felt.

Click here to see the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s range of fact sheets, webinars, vignettes and other online resources on how employers can better prepare and respond to these new laws.

How the VCCI can help

If you, as an employer or an employer’s representative feel unsure about what your organisation has in place or would like help in putting a plan in place, please do not hesitate to contact the Victorian Chamber’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing team on 03 8662 5196 as they can assess your existing plan, help you to develop a plan and work with you to ensure your plan is being worked and is working.

They can also ensure you are fully aware of the duty to report cases of COVID-19 at the workplace under the reporting laws that came into place on the 28th July.

For more information on our HSW consulting, training and other support services, please contact us on 03 8662 5333 or hsw@victorianchamber.com.au to discuss your needs.

Members can also call our Advice Line on 8662 5222, or can register to be notified of any changes to awards applicable to your business. Award subscription via the Victorian Chamber will allow you to receive summarised, user-friendly tables which highlight the key differences that occur when awards are modified. 


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