SafeWork SA told to raise standards in review following murder of nurse Gayle Woodford

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Families of four people who died on the job say South Australia’s security watchdog “disrespects” them and does not hold those responsible “to account for the deaths of their loved ones,” according to a torrid review from the organization.

The independent review, launched after SafeWork SA decided not to prosecute the employer of murdered outback nurse Gayle Woodford, has called for extensive changes to the watchdog’s oversight mechanisms and internal norms and culture.

It was led by former WorkSafe President Victoria John Merritt, who made 39 recommendations, the most significant being the establishment of an advisory board focused on the performance of SafeWork SA.

Mr Merritt said SafeWork SA needed to “raise its ambition for safer workplaces and hold itself accountable to achieve this”.

He also encouraged reforms to the Work Health and Safety Act to allow workers, their families or unions to bring their own civil suit against negligent employers.

The report, released publicly on Wednesday, was handed over six weeks ago to the SA government, which accepted 25 of the recommendations in full or in part, but rejected four – including one relating to Ms Woodford – and delayed decisions on the rest .

The review came about after consultation with the families of four people:

Mr Merritt noted that each of the families felt that SafeWork SA had made “significant errors in its investigations”, “disrespected them” by withholding information and “failed to ensure that other employees would not suffer the same fate “.

“Each of these claims has substance,” he wrote.

Pam Gurner-Hall, the widow of Jorge Castillo-Riffo, has previously pushed for workplace safety reforms.(ABC News: Malcolm Sutton)

The report found the organization was losing too many staff, but acknowledged that senior leaders had “worked hard to address issues of poor performance and accountability” in recent years.

“Anecdotally, some employees subject to performance management have left or left SafeWork SA,” Mr. Merritt noted.

“A surprising number of staff told me they don’t feel it is safe to speak out on issues that should be communicated to management.”

Government rejects Woodford recommendation

SafeWork SA has previously come under scrutiny, including by ICAC, for stalled or failed prosecutions.

One of Mr Merritt’s proposed reforms was the creation of a SafeWork SA Oversight and Advisory Council (SWOAC), which would include the Victims of Crime Commissioner to ensure that SafeWork SA “is held accountable and supported in respecting the rights and needs of families of deceased employees.”.

SafeWork SA sign on a wall.
Workplace safety authority SafeWork SA has come under fire after deadlocked or failed prosecutions.(YouTube: SafeWork SA)

In a separate recommendation, Mr. Merritt suggested informing SWOAC of the legal reasons why SafeWork SA decided not to prosecute Ms. Woodford’s employer, the Nganampa Health Council.

“SWOAC should be advised by counsel of the advice that SafeWork SA relied on in its decision not to pursue prosecution following the tragic death of Gayle Woodford,” the review states.

But that has been rejected by the SA government on the grounds that advice “regarding a possible prosecution is subject to lawyer’s professional secrecy”.

“It would be contrary to long-standing policy to make this kind of legal advice public,” the government said in a preliminary response document.

However, Attorney General Kyam Maher said the government had committed to creating a “tripartite working group to oversee what SafeWork does”.

RAH tribute to Jorge Castillo-Riffo
A 2016 tribute to Jorge Castillo-Riffo, who died two years earlier during the construction of the Royal Adelaide Hospital.(ABC News: Daniel Keane)

“It was an election commitment to thoroughly scrutinize SafeWork SA… and the report finds that significant improvements have been made in recent years to what SafeWork does, but there is still room to do better,” said Mr Maher .

“We plan to establish this group and ensure that group oversees other recommendations related to streamlining reporting, streamlining investigations and ensuring that SafeWork… helps keep employees safe.

“When an incident occurs at work that results in an employee’s injury and sometimes death, we want to make sure that SafeWork does everything it can to ensure victims are informed along the way and are part of the process of investigation. and possible prosecution.”

The SA government said it had also accepted a recommendation that SafeWork SA “hire an independent consultant to conduct a survey of its culture”.

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