A recent court decision to issue a hefty fine to a housing construction company after one of its contractors fell and died at a worksite is another stark reminder safety must not be compromised.
After pleading guilty to a breach of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, the company was fined $250,000 at a sentence hearing in the Cairns Magistrates Court on 15 November 2018.
In March 2016, the defendant was constructing a two storey house in Trout Street, Kanimbla. It engaged a painting contractor, who in turn used Darren Lawrence McKenzie to assist with the painting work.
A void of 3.2m existed between the ground and first level of the house. The housing construction work and painting was deemed ‘high risk construction work’ under work health and safety regulations.
On 29 March 2016, the defendant’s site supervisor and the painting contractor discussed fall protection for the void area before painting started. A timber pallet barrier was positioned across the vertical face of the void and held upright by one or more buckets filled with rubble or water.
As was customary between the defendant and the painting contractor, the site supervisor handed the interior of the house over to the painting contractor for it to be taped up and sprayed. After the site supervisor left the house, the pallet barrier was removed and placed against a door frame to the right of the void area.
On 1 April 2016, Darren Lawrence McKenzie fell through the void and sustained fatal injuries. There were no eyewitnesses and the exact sequence of events leading up to the incident are unknown.
A report from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland’s Engineering Unit determined the pallet barrier was inadequate, non-compliant with work health and safety regulations and unsafe as a form of edge protection.
Acting Magistrate Terence Browne found responsibilities under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 should not be relaxed regardless of margins or timeframes Workers have a right to expect their workplaces are safe and that safety is a priority over expediency.
His Honour noted the death of this worker was preventable and the company had failed in its responsibilities under the Act. The work was high risk and the company’s safety plan contained largely generic clauses which didn’t specifically relate to the construction work being done at the site. Appropriate fall protection measures were readily available and not overly burdensome. The hazard was obvious and the risk which materialised was catastrophic.
In determining penalty, the Magistrate noted the defendant’s relatively modest income over previous years, its lack of previous WHSQ breaches, genuine remorse and post incident measures undertaken.
The company was fined $250,000 and ordered to pay court costs of almost $1,600.
No conviction was recorded.
“Sadly, not erecting an appropriate protection barrier cost a man his life,” said Dr Simon Blackwood, head of Workplace Health and Safety Queensland.
“Shortcuts and haphazard barriers offer no safety at all to workers.
“Employers have a basic responsibility to keep their workers safe – to make sure they go home to their families at the end of a shift.
“There were clear dangers here, the chances of a fall high, but very little was done to mitigate the risk.
“We can’t let this happen on worksites, we won’t let this happen, but if it does, we will come down hard on those responsible, especially if someone is injured or dies.
“Hopefully this quarter of a million dollar fine sends a strong message to workplaces everywhere – do the right thing, be responsible and never compromise safety.”
Workplace Health and Safety Queensland
21 November, 2018