The Ministry of Social Development has entered a guilty plea to breaches of Health and Safety legislation for failing to adequately protect staff at its Ashburton Work and Income office.
The office was the site of a double murder on September 1, 2014, when gunman Russell Tully stormed the office, shooting and killing two Work and Income employees.
WorkSafe filed a prosecution against the Ministry in early 2015, alleging that the Ministry had breached s 6 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, which requires employers to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of employees.
Despite the guilty plea, the Ministry will continue to defend other aspects of the prosecution, including the extent of its obligation to create a safe office layout, where employees are working with the public.
The Ministry’s guilty plea comes in the wake of an independent review by Former Police Commissioner Rob Robinson, Deloitte Managing Partner Murray Jack, and a senior advisory team that included representatives from Australia’s Centrelink and the ANZ bank. In a Ministry press release, Chief Executive Brendan Boyle said that the report found that “nothing could have stopped a motivated murderer like Mr Tully”.
Mr Boyle said that the Ministry had plead guilty, “Not because it somehow implies an ability to have stopped Mr Tully, but because it will help bring closure for us”. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the ultimate question in the Health and Safety context is not whether particular harm could have been prevented, but whether there were steps available to improve safety, that were not taken.
The prosecution – and the guilty plea – send a clear message that, in providing a safe environment for employees, employers will need to consider, and may be held liable following, the actions of third parties or external forces.
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