Amputations, shocks and burns – court cases

In late October 2009, there were several OHS court cases in Australia that raise issues that need to be kept at the forefront of the thoughts of safety managers, safety professionals, workers and business owners.

Amputation

One case in South Australia identified the need to have sufficient detail in policies and procedures for workers to be safe.  The comment of Industrial Magistrate Michael Ardlie is particularly important.

Beerenberg Pty Ltd was fined $A9,000 dollars for breaching OHS law

“The incident happened in May 2007 at the company’s Hahndorf premises. A female employee was operating a mincer as part of the process of producing green tomato chutney.

The court was told that at the conclusion of the task, the employee switched off the machine but noticed a piece of tomato hanging from the mincer plate. She went to flick the piece off, but in doing so lost the tip of her index finger.

SafeWork SA’s investigation concluded that the woman’s finger had gone through one of the holes in the mincer plate and come into contact with the cutting blade behind, which was still winding down after the machine was switched off.

The fingertip could not be reattached, but the woman returned to work with the business after five weeks. Aside from the cosmetic appearance, there remains some numbness in the finger.

In his penalty decision today, Industrial Magistrate Michael Ardlie acknowledged that while there was a safe operating procedure written and a warning sign in place, these measures alone were insufficient.

“(The measures) did not specifically warn employees of the dangers presented by the moving parts of the mincer after the mincer had been turned off… the procedures in place did not go far enough.”

Since the incident, the company has fitted a purpose-built distance guard as well as an interlock that shuts the machine down once the guard is removed.”

Magistrate Ardlie fined the defendant $9,000 this being its first offence.

Crushed Fingers and Guarding

The same Industrial Magistrate as above, McArdlie, had to deal with a very different case.  Whereas Beerenberg was facing its first offence, OE & DR Pope are on their fifth.

“SafeWork SA prosecuted OE & DR Pope Pty Ltd after investigating an incident at its Wingfield printing plant in March 2007.

A 34-year-old male employed as a machine operator, suffered crush injuries to three fingers of his right hand, which were caught between moving rollers.  While he returned to work after three weeks, he suffered residual sensitivity problems, and left the business in December 2007 for unrelated reasons.

The court was told that the operator had attempted to clean dry spots from a roller without stopping the machine, and was able to gain access to the moving parts through a 70mm gap in the guarding.  Furthermore, the employee’s usual assistant was not available leaving him to perform two roles on the machine.  The supervisor who also should have been present was elsewhere on the premises at the time.

In his decision on penalty handed down today, Industrial Magistrate Michael Ardlie noted that the machine involved had replaced another involved in a previous injury, but that a risk assessment failed to identify the problem which ultimately occurred:

“Whilst the defendant prior to the incident did assess the machine, installed a guard and introduced a Standard Operating Procedure, the steps it took were inadequate.”

The court was told that this was the company’s fifth offence dating back to 1998, and all previous incidents resulted in similar injuries from similar circumstances.

Therefore, being a subsequent offence under the Occupational Health Safety and Welfare Act 1986, the defendant faced a maximum fine of $A200,000. Magistrate Ardlie fined the company $A40,000.”

Fifth incident in just over ten years – “similar injuries from similar circumstances”.  The reduced fine of $A40,000 seems a little odd in this context.

There are several elements that are disturbing in this case – ineffective guarding, excessive or conflicting workload and absent work supervisor.

Overhead Hazards

Just as falling in some workplaces is as “easy as falling of a log”, so it is that many people forget to look up.  A court case in Western Australia has fined Shrigley Drilling Contractors $A40,000 after one worker was shocked and another burnt when their drilling rig tilted into high-voltage overhead powerlines in 2006.

“Laurence Victor Shrigley – trading as Shrigley Drilling Contractors – pleaded guilty to failing to ensure that the workplace was safe and, by that failure, causing serious harm to another person and was fined in the Perth Magistrates Court this week.

In May 2006, Western Power had contracted Outback Power Services to perform works and construct a voltage regulator at Eneabba. Outback Power had contracted Mr Shrigley to perform drilling works.

On May 17, Mr Shrigley and an electrical contractor were engaged in drilling holes with a drilling rig underneath power lines. The position in which the drilling contractor chose to place the rig required him to raise the mast very close to the power lines.

In repositioning the rig, the left-hand outrigger was raised and the mast tilted towards the power lines. The mast touched the power lines and Mr Shrigley received an electric shock and was thrown backwards from the drilling rig.

Another man, who was driving the truck that carried the drilling rig and was working with Mr Shrigley on a voluntary basis, also received an electric shock serious enough to set his clothing on fire. He sustained burns to around 60 per cent of his body.

The court heard that no formal pre-start meeting had been held before the work commenced, and no directions were given for the work, with the exception of where the holes were required to be placed.

Mr Shrigley had not checked whether the power lines were live, or attempted to make any arrangements for the power in the area to be isolated.”

The features in this case include contractor management, using a volunteer,  inadequate preparation, and inadequate number of workers (apparently, no spotter).

It is understandable that cynicism is rampant in the safety profession when the same work practices lead to injuries in the 21st century just as they did in the 20th and sometimes in the 19th.

Kevin Jones

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