Victoria’s occupational health and safety regulator, WorkSafe, has charged the state health department with 58 violations for failing to provide safe workplaces to hotel quarantine workers.
Violations occurred between March and July 2020, and could result in a fine of $95 million, up to $1.64 million per violation.
This should serve as a warning to all employers to begin assessing the safety of their employees against COVID and how they can mitigate these risks before the nation reopens.
Read more: Here’s the proof we need. Health workers are catching COVID-19 at work more than we thought
Remind me, what is WorkSafe?
States and territories are responsible for enforcing laws designed to keep people safe at work: Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Laws.
WorkSafe Victoria is responsible for and regulated by OHS in Victoria. Responsible for ensuring that employers and employees comply with OHS laws; And it provides information, advice and support.
The Parliament of Victoria gives WorkSafe the power to prosecute employers for violating OHS laws. In 2018-19, it launched 157 prosecutions, resulting in fines of approximately $7 million.
Unlike some other state OHS regulators, Worksafe also administers the Victorian workers’ compensation system.
Why did WorkSafe accuse the Department of Health?
WorkSafe has charged the Victoria Department of Health with 58 violations of Sections 21 and 23 of the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act.
The Act requires employers to maintain a work environment that is “safe and without risk to health” of employees. These obligations extend to independent contractors or those employed by those contractors.
WorkSafe alleges that in operating Victorian COVID-19 Quarantine Hotels between March and July 2020, the Department of Health failed to maintain a working environment that was safe for health for its employees and others working And there was limited risk. hotels.
Essentially WorkSafe is saying that through a series of failures, the department put government employees and other employees at risk of serious illness or death by contracting COVID-19 at work.
WorkSafe alleges that the Victorian Department of Health failed:
Hire people with expertise in infection control to work in quarantine hotels
Providing adequate infection prevention and control training to security guards working in hotels, as evidence shows that training can improve staff safety practices
At least initially instructed to use personal protective equipment, and later did not update the instructions on wearing masks in some quarantine hotels.
WorkSafe conducted a 15-month long investigation starting approximately July 2020. It is possible that the trigger for this investigation was a referral from Cote’s inquiry into Hotel Quarantine, but this is not stated.
Is it unusual for a government regulator to fine a government department?
It’s not so unusual. Government departments are subject to the same OHS laws as other employers in the state, and so Worksafe’s powers extend to them as well.
Over the years, WorkSafe has successfully prosecuted the Department of Justice, Parks Victoria and the Department of Health, resulting in fines and punishments.
For example, in 2018, WorkSafe sued Correction Victoria (part of the Justice Department) after a 2015 riot at the Metropolitan Remand Center that put the health and safety of employees at risk.
The riots happened after the ban on smoking in prisons. WorkSafe recognized that prisoner unrest was predictable and that having additional security in the days leading up to the smoking ban could have reduced its impact on staff.
In that case the Justice Department pleaded guilty and pleaded guilty and fined more than $300,000 in legal costs.
What does this mean for other employers?
This case highlights that employers have an obligation to provide a safe work environment for their employees and others in their workplaces. This is extended to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection.
These obligations do not apply only to government departments. They apply to every employer in the state.
Employers should ensure that they have appropriate systems and policies in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection for their employees. This includes, where appropriate, physical distancing, working from home, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), good hygiene practices, ventilation in the workplace, etc.
As we reach higher levels of COVID vaccination coverage, employers must consider the unique risks to their environment and address them appropriately before reopening the nation.
Some employers in high-risk settings – such as health care, retail and hospitality – will need to do more than others to protect their employees.
What happens next for the Vic Health Department?
The case has been filed in the magistrate’s court, with the preliminary hearing date set for October 22. It will proceed through the court system from there. Most prosecutions are heard in Magistrates’ Court, although some proceed in County Court.
If the health department pleads guilty, the courts will decide whether the fine should be paid and how much. The court can also determine whether a sentence has been recorded.
Read more: Soon you’ll need vaccinations to enjoy shops, cafes and events – but what about the staff there?