Most of the Australian media covered the prosecution of the latest of three young men who set fire to a work colleague during their apprenticeships.

As the case was heard in a Magistrates’ Court, the only sources of information on the case are a couple of original media reports and the statement from WorkSafe Victoria which says:

“Matthew Lever, 23, was the third apprentice to be prosecuted after a January 2008 incident where three apprentice mechanics ignited brake-cleaning fluid which they sprayed on another apprentice….

The Ringwood Magistrates’ court today [1 July 2010] convicted Matthew Lever on three charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and fined him $5,000. The two other apprentices were convicted on health and safety charges in December 2008, and also fined $5,000 each.” [link added]

WorkSafe says it is “currently investigating a similar incident which occurred in Dandenong in March, where two apprentice mechanics suffered burn injuries after allegedly igniting brake fluid.”

WorkSafe also noted that the company was not prosecuted over the December 2008 incidents as the company had

“… done the right thing – they’d spelt out their expectation that bullying and pranks would not be tolerated, and disciplined all three apprentices on a previous occasion.”

This would be the angle that labour lawyers would take through emphasising the importance of workplace policies but it is good to see that a company is not afraid to set parameters of acceptable behaviour.  In a large part it was the active ignorance of serious bullying activity that did for the owner of Cafe Vamp.

The magistrate, Kate Hawkins, made specific mention of this issue, according to one media story:

“Certainly the consequences of the injuries which you caused to Mr Bridgborn were very, very serious,” she said.  “It’s of concern you were told and formally warned that what you were doing was dangerous … It’s not funny to set fire to people and now you understand what the consequences can be.”

The attitudes of some people to workplace bullying is peculiar and the, perhaps unforgivable, comments reported of Lever’s lawyer should be noted, although it is the lawyer’s job to get his client a lenient sentence:

“Lever’s lawyer Tim Marsh told the court the burning of the worker was not a case of workplace bullying, but the result of a four-day carry on.

“There was a degree of amusement or entertainment value on the day. It was all done for a laugh,” he said.

Mr Marsh said there was a misunderstanding between all three men about what was about to happen but agreed it was risky and dangerous behaviour.”

Marsh is also reported to have said that

“…. Lever had matured in the intervening two years and he was remorseful for the attack.”

This implies that at the time, Lever did not know that setting someone on fire was a bad thing to do??!!  Even after being told by the employer that bullying behaviour was not tolerated??!!  Matthew Lever was 21 not 12.

Bridgborn was around 17 at the time and had only been working a couple of days.  What did the acts of three bullies tell him he could expect for the next 40 years of his working life?

I think that the penalties are inadequate and the fact that the victim lived is almost irrelevant.  We are told by workplace bullying analysts that bullying is about power and the incident above could easily have become a fatality.  If the incident is as serious as WorkSafe and the Magistrate make out, the  penalty is clearly inadequate.  The intention of three men seems to have been to harm another, regardless of the insulting comments of the defendant’s lawyer says.

Kevin Jones