What is the value of a human life?
It’s an impossible question to answer. But when it comes to work health and safety regulation in most parts of Australia, the answer is clear: life is not valued highly enough.
In the case of WA construction worker Wesley Ballantine, the value placed on his life was $38,000. This starkly demonstrates the inadequacy of the current laws and their enforcement.
In the early hours of 5 January 2017, Wesley – who was 17 years old – fell 12 metres to his death while working as a trades assistant on a Perth construction site. He was working on the construction and installation of an atrium roof, and fell through an open void to the ground below.
The head contractor, Sydney-based firm Valmont (WA) Pty Ltd, was charged under state work health and safety law with failing to ensure that persons who were not their employees were not exposed to hazards.
In July, the WA Magistrates Court imposed a fine of just $38,000 on Valmont after it entered a guilty plea. Worksafe WA Commissioner, Darren Kavanagh, stated that the company failed in its duty to ensure that its subcontractor observed its obligations to ensure work was performed safely. Prosecutions are currently pending against the subcontractor (Wesley’s direct employer), and a director and a manager of that company. One party has pleaded not guilty to those charges; the other parties have not yet entered pleas.
The maximum penalty for the offence that Valmont pleaded guilty to was (at the time) $200,000. Yet the penalty imposed is less than a fifth of that, despite these facts detailed in Worksafe WA’s prosecution summary:
So is it right that a guilty plea for failing to provide a safe work environment which resulted in the teenager’s death did not justify the imposition of the maximum penalty for the part that Valmont played in the death?
It’s not. It’s time we had laws which reflect the seriousness of workplace deaths and their devastating impact on families. Industrial manslaughter legislation is needed across Australia, imposing criminal liability upon a corporation and its senior officers whose negligence causes the death of a worker. It’s unclear whether Wesley’s case would have met this legal standard, in the absence of industrial manslaughter legislation at present.