As the Victorian Government announces a Royal Commission into the bushfires that have devastated large areas across Victoria, a 2006 NSW Workcover prosecution of that state’s police handling of the Redfern riots, serves as a reminder of the level of care expected under OH&S laws for emergency services in hazardous environments. In that case, of the 217 police that attended the disturbance, 42 police sustained injuries ranging from psychological trauma to various levels of musculoskeletal injury. The Industrial Court of NSW found that the NSW Police Service had failed in its duty of care to make the workplace that they controlled, safe and without risk. This is undoubtedly a difficult condition to achieve during civil disorder but still a responsibility under OH&S laws. The Court found that the risk of injury (not just resulting from injuries but the risk of injury), was great. It found that the personal protective equipment provided to some police was inadequate and the level of training provided in use of that equipment varied and was in some cases insufficient. The Court did not however find an absence of relevant policies and procedures for dealing with civil disturbances but rather that those policies and procedures were in some cases inadequate. The Service was fined $100,000 for its breach.
While the proposed Royal Commission in Victoria will undoubtedly look at all relevant preventative and preparedness measures taken by emergency services relating to the Victorian bushfires, given that this natural disaster is unprecedented in Australia’s history, it has stretched many of the human resources available to emergency services across the state. It will be with interest we watch the response of the Victorian Worksafe Authority in the disaster’s aftermath, given the precedent that was set from the Redfern riots in NSW.