WorkSafe NZ has laid a charge against the Ministry of Social Development over the shooting at its Ashburton office in September in which two Work and Income staff were killed and another was injured.
Russell John Tully, 48, allegedly murdered Work and Income employees Peg Noble and Susan Leigh Cleveland and seriously wounded Lindy Curtis, in a shooting at their Cass St office on September 1 last year. Tully is set to stand trial in May.
The charge, laid under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, alleges that the ministry failed to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees while at work.
I’m somewhat staggered by this decision. Holding an employer accountable for the actions of a killer who stormed into their offices with a gun, seems repugnant. If there was gross negligence on the actions of an employer, then I might expect a prosecution – say if they ignored repeated warnings.
We don’t know the details of why Worksafe is prosecuting, so have to hold off judgement until court. However I am worried this may represent a unfair shifting of responsibility.
Imagine the employer isn’t MSD, but a private employer. And bad enough that someone storms in and kills two staff, and terrifies the others. But a few months later you get told you’re being prosecuted for not keeping your staff safe enough. It would be devastating.
The threshold for prosecution should be high. No employer will be perfect, and short of turning every office in the country into an iron clad fortress, I don’t see how you can stop someone with a gun.
Now maybe there was some very basic stuff that MSD got wrong, that justifies legal action. I will reserve judgement until we see the case. But my initial instinct is that this may set a very low bar for prosecutions against future employers.