THE families of Charlie Howkins and Jack Brownlee have taken their Occupational Health and Safety battle to Canberra in a bid to fix an outdated system.
Lana Cormie, the wife of Charlie Howkins and Dave and Janine Brownlee, the parents of Jack Brownlee, who died in a trench collapse at Delacombe in March, have spoken at a Senate inquiry which is being held into the framework surrounding the prevention, investigation and prosecution of industrial deaths in Australia.
Both families presented their submissions to the Victorian leg of the inquiry last week.
The committee is expected to report back to the Senate in early October.
Dr Cormie said there was a minefield of issues that needed to be addressed but among the most important were the implementation of safe work cultures across Australia and the effectiveness of penalties to workplaces convicted of industrial manslaughter.
“Laws need to be bought in line so that penalties match the crime as they do in other areas of society,” Dr Cormie said.
“The Occupational Health and Safety laws are run state-by-state, however the federal government has a set model of laws which they recommend states use, but it is up to each individual state as to whether they do or don’t.”
“A company can plead guilty to killing someone and end up with a $40,000 fine, it doesn’t match up with society expectations.”
Dr Cormie has called for Occupational Health and Safety to be a key state and federal election issue.
She admitted until the March incident, she had no idea how occupational health and safety laws worked.
“There isn’t a lot of awareness,” she said.
“We assume in our society that the system is looking after us and if the worst happens it will compensate families effectively and investigation and prosecutions will be completed efficiently.
“I made that assumption, the reality is very different and unless you come face-to-face, you don’t understand how deficient it is.”
She said other issues that needed to be addressed were how families were told about incidents involving their loved ones.
READ MORE:How a tragedy united two families
“I looked up to see a helicopter in the sky and I knew something was happening, the Brownlee’s were contacted by friends on social media seeing if Jack was alright,” she said.
“The whole process following a death, you have to navigate WorkSafe, Workcover, the police investigation, the whole gamut of complexities and no-one is given a guide to the process.
“There should be a case manager to assist to each family. Some people may not be well educated, some might have English as a second language, what happens to those families if the main bread winner is no longer there to provide for the family.”
“At the end of the day, even though Charlie and Jack weren’t union affiliated, the only support we received was from the CFMEU.”
The Labor state government has committed to create a new criminal offence of workplace manslaughter in the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 should it win the election in November.
The Greens have supported Labor’s plan.
Labor says that under the proposed new law, employers will face fines of almost $16 million and individuals responsible for negligently causing death will be held to account and face up to 20 years in jail.
“It couldn’t be more simple: no one should die at work. These laws will help make sure that every Victorian makes it home to their loved ones,” Premier Daniel Andrews said.
“Families who have lost a loved one at work deserve justice – and that means jail, not a slap on the wrist.”
Liberal finance spokesman David Morris said it was important not to confuse industrial manslaughter with occupational health and safety.
He said legislation already existed, but it was up to courts to prosecute to the full extent. “We are still to see detail of the government’s position apart from what we’ve seen in a press release,” he said.
Dr Cormie said she hoped the community would consider this issue at the November state election.
“Do they want to come home from work alive? Which parties are committed to making the changes required to keep us all safe at work?” she said.
WorkSafe said the investigation was continuing.