This can be a fairly complicated area to understand at the best of times, let alone when you’re trying to grasp the horror of a loved ones death.
There are some key departments that get involved in this process.
POLICE AND EMERGENCY SERVICES
In the first instance, these are the good men and women who go in and look after our loved one. That is pretty much where their services end unless there’s some evidence of foul play - and that’s a completely different topic so we won’t go there.
You may remember them being referred to as “Workplace Services” - these departments change names all the time. For now though SAFEWORK SA are the people that are in charge of inspections and investigations into workplace accidents.
They will head up the investigation and in each instance each fatality is dedicated its own senior staff who will (hopefully) make contact with the next of kin on a reasonable time frame. This person will be your main point of contact in relation to the investigation and the likelihood of any charges being laid against the employer.
THE CORONERS OFFICE
Every workplace death requires that a cause of death is determined (if possible). This department handles the range of tests and examinations (autopsy) as well as the death certificate. Often times there is an interim death certificate that allows family to organise some of the financial aspects of the deceased (loans etc) and when the Coroner closes off on the case, a final death certificate will be issued.
Not every industrial death will result in an inquest - in fact it’s probably fair to say very few do. If there are areas where it is deemed an inquest is necessary, that will not begin until after the investigative and prosecuting departments have finalised their activity.
THE CROWNS SOLICITORS OFFICE (ATTORNEY GENERALS DEPARTMENT)
When SafeWork SA have completed their investigation, they will either have evidence to support a prosecution - or not. What that means is that if someone (for example the company) has breached / broken Occupational Health & Safety laws...or others that come under the industrial safety arena (Dangerous Substances for example has its own set of legislation guidelines) then charges may well follow.
These charges do not involve the family - or perhaps it’s better to say that the family do not bring the charges against the employer. These charges relate to breaches of legislation and they are investigated and tried by Government. That information is important because many times well meaning friends assume the ‘court’ process is about civil or common law cases. Truth is most (the vast percentage) of industrial deaths are protected from common law litigation.
Generally, each case is allocated to a solicitor to further research the case. The whole file and all the evidence is combed through once again. Sometimes more evidence or improving the level of evidence is needed. They have the ultimate say on whether a case goes to court or not - or whether they believe they have enough to ensure a prosecution is possible.
There is a 2 year statutory time limit - and this means the complaint (charges) must be served within 2 years of the offence or incident. It’s not unusual for SafeWork SA and the Crown’s solicitors to use as much of that time as they need. It’s important families are aware of that. None of this is a fast process and for those outside these departments, the constant delay is daunting and painful.
Then its a matter of waiting for courts to begin the process of time slotting -- and from here, hopefully you won’t be tortured with endless adjournments but again, be prepared. The first few sessions are really rather administrative so it may not be worthwhile attending. With any luck, you have contact either with the Crown’s solicitor or the Senior SafeWork SA inspector to help you decide whether a trip into the city will be worthwhile.
Anything to do with workers compensation is handled by this department - and this comes under completely separate legislation. In some states WorkCover handles the investigation as well, but here in South Australia, their role is almost solely to handle workers compensation claims.
Not every workplace death is compensated. Perhaps it’s fair to say that a reasonable proportion are not. The crux of our workers compensation scheme is a poor attempt of trying to ensure a family is not too disadvantaged as a result of a death at work.
There is much about this whole compensation issue that many South Australians are naive about - and considering that we potentially have companies that can flaunt the welfare and safety of our worker and remain completely isolated from any litigation, makes this a very touchy topic.
This is a very basic over view of the departments involved in workplace death - and its by no means exhaustive.
Our suggestion would be to take a look on the WORKCOVER and SAFEWORK SA pages and read the documents that they have recently released in order to get some clarity over this legal maze.
And... Of course we will do whatever we can to help. There’s no substitute for personal experience ... And we have mountains of that minus the bull.