Workplace regulation experts are warning Victorian farmers will face upwards of a dozen of criminal charges a year under industrial manslaughter laws introduced on July 1 unless the sector overhauls its approach to safety.
Agriculture has the highest fatality rate among its workers of any industry in Australia: 11 deaths per 100,000 workers, they say.
Safe Work's most recent five-year review of fatality statistics found agriculture had contributed the highest number of workplace deaths in Victoria. Between 2014 and 2018, 63 people died working in the sector.
RMIT lecturer and workplace safety lawyer Neil Salvador said the introduction of industrial manslaughter laws in Victoria would serve as a wake up call for the sector.
He said the farm sector had flown under the radar for too long and attitudes towards compliance had been traditionally lacklustre .
"Currently, the agriculture industry represents three per cent of Australia's GDP and is responsible for close to 25pc of workplace deaths in the country," Mr Salvador said.
"The figures have been appalling for years and point to a cultural problem," he said.
"Over the past five years Victoria has been averaging 37 workplace fatalities per year. The agriculture industry in Victoria has been averaging more than 12 deaths.
"That's 37 body corporates, directors, financial managers who could now be criminally prosecuted each year across Victoria.
"If that's not a warning to be heeded, then I don't know what it is."
Catherine Velisha, managing director of her family's third-generation horticulture business Velisha Farms, based in Werribee South, said the new laws were a blessing in disguise.
"When I took over this business from my father, I inherited what I would call a fear-based approach to compliance," she said.
"Compliance was basically seen as hard to understand, a cost burden and another piece of red tape that makes the viability of farming all the more tenuous. To this day I don't think that view is uncommon.
"However, engaging with WorkSafe Victoria I have come to change my attitude towards compliance. It actually bolsters your business. It reduces risk, increases staff loyalty and it puts your business in a position where you can act as a leader - in your sector and in your community."
Ms Velisha said she was now using her farms' knowledge of OH&S practices to establish her business as a role model and mentor in the horticultural sector.
She encouraged other business decision makers to think creatively about how instilling a safe workplace culture could help create opportunities for their business going forward.
"I'm using compliance now to innovate and spread my business across farming and education," she said.
"We're registering as an RTO to spread knowledge of safety practices and management in horticulture. This is our way of trying to address those terrible figures.
"However, I think it's going to take a lot more business owners stepping up on this to create the change in the sector that is actually needed."
Last year the Victorian Farmers Federation expressed disappointment the industrial manslaughter laws passed through state parliament without amendment.
It said workplace safety was a priority for every farming business but feared the new laws may cause some "perverse safety outcomes".
VFF submitted amendments to the legislation that it believed would have achieved greater fairness across all workplaces and also led to improvements in safety standards.
Its key recommendation was to exempt family businesses from the legislation.
The intent of the exemption was to provide peace of mind to family members by way of protecting a person from prosecution in the instance a family member tragically died in a workplace accident.
Under the new laws, employers who negligently cause a workplace death will face fines of up to $16.5 million and individuals will face up to 20 years in jail.
Meanwhile, Queensland's mining and quarry executives face up to two decades in jail under changes to industrial manslaughter laws.
The changes were designed to better protect the state's 50,000 mine workers.
Employers and senior safety officials could be held responsible under what the state government says are some of the toughest mine safety and health laws in the world.
Corporations face fines up to $13 million.
The NSW Government has so far resisted the introduction of similar laws.
The story Vic farmers facing criminal charges under industrial manslaughter laws first appeared on Farm Online.