Health and Safety Laws: Safe but Not Harmless

CommentaryPeople in Queensland, and throughout Australia, watched in horror when they saw television images of a burning house in Clayfied, Brisbane in which a six-year-old boy, Max Chirila, died during a horrific blaze, likely caused by an electrical fault. As the roof of the house had collapsed, it was not immediately possible to ascertain whether smoke alarms had been installed in the house, which potentially could have alerted the boy to the grave danger. The Queensland Parliament adopted strict new laws on smoke alarms, which owners-occupiers of a dwelling must comply with by 2027. In enacting the legislation, the parliament responded to, or anticipated, tragedies like the one which happened in the early hours of Easter Monday when Chirila was consumed by the ravenous flames during the conflagration. History reveals that each time a tragedy occurs, legislators are spurred into action and can be expected to adopt new measures to ensure that such a tragedy “never occurs in the future.” These measures are examples of paternalistic legislation, which is often expensive for homeowners to implement, but may also have salutary effects. Indeed, most paternalistic interventions have led to the adoption of useful and life-saving laws, for example, laws that imposed an obligation on homeowners to fence swimming pools, and on car owners to use seat belts in vehicles. However, the demand, typically made by distraught victims and compassionate or calculating politicians that legislation be adopted to ensure that tragedies will never happen again, is, while understandable, sometimes disingenuous. This is because, even common sense suggests that disasters, like the blaze that killed Max Chirila, will likely occur again in the future, even if the authorities were to adopt and enforce relevant paternalistic legislation targeting these disasters. Mankind is powerless to permanently eradicate tragedies, but it may be able to reduce their incidence by the adoption of targeted and well-considered legislation. For example, consider the case for the installation of sophisticated smoke alarms in all dwellings. Since Jan. 1, smoke alarms are compulsory in rented properties or homes for sales in Queensland. These smoke alarms must be “interconnected” and “photoelectric.” A smoke detector in a home in Lyon, France, on Feb. 26, 2015. (Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP via Getty Images) The smoke alarm legislation also imposes an obligation on all owner-occupiers of homes to install interconnected photoelectric smoke alarms in every bedroom, in hallways, and on every level by 2027. Specifically, the legislation requires that smoke alarms in the dwelling must be less than 10 years old, operate when tested, and be interconnected with every other smoke alarm in the dwelling so all activate together when smoke is detected in any part. Thus, “interconnected” alarms ensure that when one alarm is activated, all alarms will sound, thereby giving sufficient time for occupants of the house to escape from the ensuing conflagration. “Photoelectric” smoke alarms are required because they are responsive to smouldering fires and dense smoke, which is the most common type of household fire. Paternalistic legislation has a long history in Australia. For example, Victoria was the first Australian state to make the use of seat belts by all vehicle passengers and drivers compulsory in 1970. The installation and use of belts is credited with the subsequent reduction in road deaths. The salutary effect of paternalistic laws should, however, not mask the reality that some safety laws and regulations are bad laws. This would be the case if legislative interventions could, or should, have been taken by the people themselves. Bad laws are those that emanate from the state acting as a Nanny State that treats people as inmates in a nursery. The intrusive intervention of the health bureaucracies and compliant businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic into the lives of law-abiding citizens reveals that governments have shamelessly embraced a punishing version of paternalism as a principle of legislation. The implementation of this principle results in the imposition of invasive health decisions, which individuals should be making themselves. These bureaucracies and politicians are, in effect, embracing the “Nanny State,” which seeks to achieve its objectives, by prescriptively controlling, prohibiting, or compelling the behaviour of individuals. Often, new legislation is promoted by legislators as an appropriate response to a calamitous incident, repetition of which will be eliminated or reduced by the adoption and enforcement of a relevant law. However, this rule-making frenzy overlooks the fact that statistically, calamities will inevitably occur in any society over time, and that legislation, while it may temporarily reduce these incidences, has the inherent capacity to itself cause serious disruptions in the life of a civilised society. The fire d

Health and Safety Laws: Safe but Not Harmless

Commentary

People in Queensland, and throughout Australia, watched in horror when they saw television images of a burning house in Clayfied, Brisbane in which a six-year-old boy, Max Chirila, died during a horrific blaze, likely caused by an electrical fault. As the roof of the house had collapsed, it was not immediately possible to ascertain whether smoke alarms had been installed in the house, which potentially could have alerted the boy to the grave danger.

The Queensland Parliament adopted strict new laws on smoke alarms, which owners-occupiers of a dwelling must comply with by 2027. In enacting the legislation, the parliament responded to, or anticipated, tragedies like the one which happened in the early hours of Easter Monday when Chirila was consumed by the ravenous flames during the conflagration.

History reveals that each time a tragedy occurs, legislators are spurred into action and can be expected to adopt new measures to ensure that such a tragedy “never occurs in the future.”

These measures are examples of paternalistic legislation, which is often expensive for homeowners to implement, but may also have salutary effects. Indeed, most paternalistic interventions have led to the adoption of useful and life-saving laws, for example, laws that imposed an obligation on homeowners to fence swimming pools, and on car owners to use seat belts in vehicles.

However, the demand, typically made by distraught victims and compassionate or calculating politicians that legislation be adopted to ensure that tragedies will never happen again, is, while understandable, sometimes disingenuous.

This is because, even common sense suggests that disasters, like the blaze that killed Max Chirila, will likely occur again in the future, even if the authorities were to adopt and enforce relevant paternalistic legislation targeting these disasters. Mankind is powerless to permanently eradicate tragedies, but it may be able to reduce their incidence by the adoption of targeted and well-considered legislation.

For example, consider the case for the installation of sophisticated smoke alarms in all dwellings. Since Jan. 1, smoke alarms are compulsory in rented properties or homes for sales in Queensland. These smoke alarms must be “interconnected” and “photoelectric.”

Epoch Times Photo
A smoke detector in a home in Lyon, France, on Feb. 26, 2015. (Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP via Getty Images)

The smoke alarm legislation also imposes an obligation on all owner-occupiers of homes to install interconnected photoelectric smoke alarms in every bedroom, in hallways, and on every level by 2027.

Specifically, the legislation requires that smoke alarms in the dwelling must be less than 10 years old, operate when tested, and be interconnected with every other smoke alarm in the dwelling so all activate together when smoke is detected in any part.

Thus, “interconnected” alarms ensure that when one alarm is activated, all alarms will sound, thereby giving sufficient time for occupants of the house to escape from the ensuing conflagration. “Photoelectric” smoke alarms are required because they are responsive to smouldering fires and dense smoke, which is the most common type of household fire.

Paternalistic legislation has a long history in Australia. For example, Victoria was the first Australian state to make the use of seat belts by all vehicle passengers and drivers compulsory in 1970. The installation and use of belts is credited with the subsequent reduction in road deaths.

The salutary effect of paternalistic laws should, however, not mask the reality that some safety laws and regulations are bad laws. This would be the case if legislative interventions could, or should, have been taken by the people themselves.

Bad laws are those that emanate from the state acting as a Nanny State that treats people as inmates in a nursery.

The intrusive intervention of the health bureaucracies and compliant businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic into the lives of law-abiding citizens reveals that governments have shamelessly embraced a punishing version of paternalism as a principle of legislation. The implementation of this principle results in the imposition of invasive health decisions, which individuals should be making themselves.

These bureaucracies and politicians are, in effect, embracing the “Nanny State,” which seeks to achieve its objectives, by prescriptively controlling, prohibiting, or compelling the behaviour of individuals.

Often, new legislation is promoted by legislators as an appropriate response to a calamitous incident, repetition of which will be eliminated or reduced by the adoption and enforcement of a relevant law.

However, this rule-making frenzy overlooks the fact that statistically, calamities will inevitably occur in any society over time, and that legislation, while it may temporarily reduce these incidences, has the inherent capacity to itself cause serious disruptions in the life of a civilised society.

Epoch Times Photo
The fire damaged home of victim Max Chirila is seen at Clayfield in Brisbane, Australia, on April 19, 2022. (AAP Image/Darren England)

This claim is not fanciful. By way of example, it is useful to consider the United Kingdom’s adoption of safety legislation that prohibited emergency rescue workers from entering water above their ankles.

This legislation, which followed the drowning of a rescue worker, caused the death of a man who suffered an epileptic seizure and fell into a shallow pond. It prevented rescue workers from entering the pond and from the security of dry land, they watched the man drown.

Hence, paternalistic legislation should only be adopted after a thoughtful consideration of the consequences of its implementation.

In this context, the Queensland requirement that “interconnected” smoke alarms are needed to alert occupants of a dwelling of a fire, seems unreasonable. This is because the noise generated by an unconnected smoke alarm would surely reverberate throughout the dwelling and would be heard by everyone in it.

Also, common sense suggests that it would be more expensive to install and repair an interconnected alarm, rather than replace an existing unconnected alarm.

Ultimately, it is the care taken by, or the vigilance of, people that will avoid disasters like the tragic death of Max Chirila, who had a future ahead of him before it was extinguished in that horrific fire during the long Easter weekend.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (Boolarong Press, 2020) and “The Coincidence” (Connor Court Publishing, 2021).