‘They turn against you’: Woman calls for change after ‘love of her life’ dies at work

Tanya Louth spends most nights looking for answers.

Key points:

  • A senate inquiry is looking into the prevention, investigation and prosecution of industrial deaths in Australia
  • A legal firm and unions are calling for the NT to adopt industrial manslaughter laws
  • The most serious charge currently available to NT WorkSafe has never been successfully prosecuted

It's been more than 18 months since she received the phone call that ripped her life apart, when she learned the "love of her life" and the father of her two children was never coming home from work.

On January 8, 2017, her partner of 16 years, the "happy", "always smiling" Daniel Bradshaw, 37, was found floating face down in the water between the barge he lived and worked on, and the Hudson Creek wharf, near Darwin.

Later, it was found that he died after losing his balance when climbing from the barge to the wharf, as there was no gangway to bridge the gap.

"I've lost my partner, our kids have … had their daddy taken from them, and Daniel's parents are left heartbroken," Ms Louth said.

"I'd never wish this upon anybody to experience this tragic loss."

Daniel Bradshaw in work clothes by the sea

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Ms Louth had counted on some form of support to help her pull their lives back together.

That never happened.

Instead, she said she's on the verge of bankruptcy, struggling to pay a mortgage and yet to receive any compensation.

"I can't believe that when you lose somebody and you're grief-stricken, it feels like the relevant authorities, the people that should be helping you, turn against you instead," she said.

Amid a senate inquiry into industrial deaths, she called for harsher penalties for negligent employers, as well as better support for grieving families.

Meanwhile, the case surrounding the death of Mr Bradshaw is ongoing.

NT WorkSafe charged Darwin shipping company Conlon Murphy, which trades as Barge Express, and barge master Nicholas Mitchell, with breaching work health and safety legislation earlier this year.

If found guilty, Barge Express would face a maximum penalty of $1.5 million and Mr Mitchell faces a maximum fine of $150,000.

The case is next before Darwin Local Court in October.

No-one imprisoned yet by NT WorkSafe

A senate inquiry is currently looking into the prevention, investigation and prosecution of industrial deaths in Australia.

In the NT, workplace health and safety legislation is regulated by NT WorkSafe.

The gap between a barge and a wharf wall showing a rope, tyre and a ladder.

Currently, the most serious charge NT WorkSafe is able to bring under these laws is reckless conduct, a "category one offence", which carries a maximum penalty of five years' jail for an individual.

This is the only charge available to NT WorkSafe that carries jail time — but it has never been successfully prosecuted.

Nationally, only one category one charge has been successfully prosecuted, which was in New South Wales.

However that is not to say a workplace death has never resulted in jailtime in the NT, as they can also be prosecuted by police under the criminal code.

Since 2012, NT WorkSafe has laid 18 "category two" charges, which carries a maximum penalty of $300,000 for an individual and $1.5 million for a body corporate.

Six of these 18 were successfully prosecuted, while 10 are still before the court.

Two "category two" charges were later withdrawn, with NT WorkSafe instead agreeing to accept an enforceable undertaking — described on its website as an "alternative to prosecution" that requires the employer to carry out specific activities.

Earlier this year an enforceable undertaking was accepted from Austral Fisheries, which agreed to spend $967,700 on health and safety activities, following the death of a 20-year-old employee.

In August last year a prosecution saw NT Christian Schools fined $50,000 for the death of a 11-year-old school boy, who was run over during a tug-of-war-style game at a school sports day on Elcho Island.

Another saw Katherine's Gibbo's Tyres fined a total of $142,000 after a truck tyre fell and killed a two-year-old.

'A mere slap on the wrist'

Maurice Blackburn principal Alison Barrett claimed there was a "reluctance to prosecute" at NT WorkSafe, and said enforceable undertakings were accepted "too often".

"Our work with injured workers leads us to believe that there is significant under reporting of incidents, when reports are made there is little or tardy follow up action being taken by NT WorkSafe, and a reluctance to enforce the law and prosecute," she said.

"This culture means there is no role the law plays in deterring poor safety behaviour of businesses.

"Too often businesses blatantly disregard workers' safety and get away with a mere slap on the wrist or volunteering their own penalty [an enforceable undertaking]."

She also called on the NT to introduce industrial manslaughter laws, saying current penalties were "insufficient".

Queensland introduced these laws to its workplace health and safety laws last year, with a maximum penalty of 20 years' jail for an individual or $10 million for a body corporate.

The laws were legislated in the ACT in 2003, and NSW and Victorian Labor governments have promised to bring them in.

But Criminal Lawyers of the NT president Marty Aust questioned whether creating another offence would lead to different outcomes.

"There may well be issues in the practical mechanisms in which the laws that currently exist are put into effect — but whether or not that would be changed in any meaningful way by simply creating a further offence provision is really questionable," Mr Aust said.

Electrical Trades Union NT state organiser David Hayes said further reform was needed to "prosecute in a timely manner" and echoed the call for industrial manslaughter laws, as did Unions NT general secretary Joel Bowden.

When asked if the NT Government would consider introducing industrial manslaughter laws, Attorney General Natasha Fyles said it would prefer to wait until a national review into model workplace health and safety laws is completed, rather than changing the NT law independently.

She also said enforceable undertakings are "mutually beneficial", in that workplace health and safety improvements benefit the community, while the employer does not record a conviction.

"At times EUs may be the preference of the family of the victim, to ensure the community benefits from reparation," she said.

"But each matter is carefully assessed on a case-by-case basis to allow the independent regulators and prosecutors to do their jobs."

An NT WorkSafe spokesperson said the injured party or family of the deceased were consulted as part of the enforceable undertaking evaluation process and their views are considered.

The NT Government launched a review into NT WorkSafe in May this year, due to complete a final report in December 2018.

Among other things, it will asses whether the NT's current legislation and penalty levels are adequate, whether they act as a sufficient deterrent to non-compliance, and if industrial manslaughter laws should be introduced.

woman with sad expression reading from piece of paper

System needs to better support families

Ms Louth said NT WorkSafe needed broader capabilities to investigate worksites and prevent accidents occurring.

"There needs to be substantial fines and jail time in the NT," she said.

"Because it's just a joke, employers are taking shortcuts to save a buck, they're not seeing the seriousness of non-compliance.

"Enforceable undertakings must match the seriousness of the breach and I certainly believe that enforceable undertakings should not be accepted where the incident involves a death."

She also said broader support for grieving families was required; an idea which was echoed by Andrea Madeley, who formed Voice of Industrial Death following the death of her son in 2004.

"Justice itself has been a contentious and continual source of frustration. The idea that people, during a highly distressing time, are forced to deal with complex legal issues without the support they need to allow them to make informed decisions, remains an issue today," she wrote in a submission to the inquiry.

Although the case of her partner is still before the court, Ms Louth was intent on seeing wider changes.

"I have a determination now to see that changes are made so that other families don't have to suffer from the loss of a loved one at work," she said.

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