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Qld Government hikes fines for OH&S offences

Queensland businesses warned to tighten compliance or tighten belts after the Government hikes fines

By Troy Bilsborough of Queensland Business Review

Queensland businesses are being warned to tighten up compliance or tighten their belts after the State Government announced it will be putting fines up across the board.

Much of the hype around the decision to date has focussed on traffic offences, however the planned increase for one penalty unit – the measure on which fine scales are based – from $75 to $100 will see all fines rise across all government departments.

Industrial Relations Minister John Mickel’s address to Parliament in Monday’s Question Time confirmed this, with on-the-spot fines for Workplace Health and Safety breaches such as failing to secure a ladder to a wall or unsafely working with asbestos to increase from $1,200 to $1,600.

Under current WH&S legislation each offence is worth 16 units each.

All State Government fines will rise on January 1, 2009. It is the first time the State Government has increased the value of its penalty units in almost a decade.

The change will bring Queensland closer into line with other states and territories.

Mickel told the house he was “pleased that at last penalty points have been raised”.

“It is important that… penalty rates will be increased for those who engage in unsafe work practices,” he says.

But Shadow Treasurer Tim Nicholls says this just another tax grab in the wake of the last week’s slashing of the State’s Budget surplus, estimating the exercise will earn an extra $70 million in revenue for the Bligh Government – a 32 percent increase on the $219 million collected last year.

He says this is just further evidence the State Government treats the people of Queensland as its “own personal ATM”.

Business representatives such as Commerce Queensland and the Australian Industry Group have expressed additional concerns about the lack of communication that has accompanied the increases so far.

They anticipate a number of businesses will be unaware this is a whole-of-government hike.

Workplace health and safety is where business will be hit hardest, with the maximum financial penalty for breaches causing multiple deaths to rise from $150,000 to $200,000 and breaches causing death or grievous bodily harm $75,000 to $100,000.

The maximum for all other WH&S breaches where there is failure to discharge obligations will rise between $12,500 and $18,750.

Furthermore, under the proposed the National OHS Review penalties would increase further, with offences to be administered against a three-tier approach.

Under a harmonised national system fines for corporations and individuals would rise to maximum of penalties of $500,000 and $100,000 for the lowest category and $3 million, $600,000 or up to five jails for the worst cases.

And while the rate for first-timer WH&S offenders generally falls between 10 and 15 percent of the maximum penalty, Freehills Employment Relations Partner Harold Downes says it will still be a shock for those businesses unaware their actions are at fault.

On a positive note he says the report’s recommendation for the onus of proof to be shifted back onto prosecutors in OHS cases will offset this somewhat.

The same good news can not be afforded to those caught in breach of water restrictions, with refusal to replace or amend a Water Efficiency Management Plan (WEMP) rising from $37,500 to $50,000.

Failure to comply with a WEMP will now warrant a maximum penalty of $166,500, up $41,626.

A spokesperson for the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations says the Government is taking a whole-of-government communication approach on the issue.

January 1 also marks the start of new council powers regarding the regulation of environmental issues such as minor water, noise, air, dust, odour and light pollution.

As part of the legislation, on the spot fines have increased to $1,500 for a corporation and $750 for an individual, while wilful and non-wilful contravention of these provisions will warrant penalties of $62,625 and $22,500.

Council have, however, been given the right to set the value of these penalties how they see appropriate, prompting speculation they could increase in a similar.

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