Woodchipper decision could set a worrying safety precedent

The development of Australia’s new Work Health and Safety laws relies on potential prosecutions and Court rulings to clarify various elements and definitions.  Some labour lawyers have forecast this clarification to take several years however last week The Warrnambool Standard reported on a decision by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) that provides a worrying clarification on the contentious definition of “as far as is reasonably practicable” from outside the anticipated Court structure.

WorkSafe Victoria placed an improvement notice on a woodchipper owned by the Warrnambool City Council following an incident in September 2011 where a worker, David Johnstone, had both hands removed by the blades of the woodchipper.  The improvement notice stated that additional guarding in the form of a “bump bar” be installed on woodchippers.  The Council requested a review of the notices through WorkSafe’s review processes.  The directions stood and the Council appealed to VCAT, as per the normal process.  VCAT found that the engineering controls demanded by WorkSafe were not required as the administrative controls advocated by the Council were found to have “reduced risk “so far as is reasonably practicable”.

The VCAT decision is concerning because it seems to conflict with the application of the Hierarchy of Controls for risk in which machine guarding, an engineering control, is considered a more effective control measure that administrative controls such as those favoured by the Council

“… to ensure two workers were always present when the chipper went back into operation — one responsible for operating the controls and the other putting branches into the feed-in chute.”

Administrative controls are not always in place or can be misunderstood where engineering controls are often fixed items that are mechanically controlled and therefore less prone to malfunction, without interference.

According to the regional newspaper, WorkSafe

“..urged VCAT to affirm the notice, saying it was appropriate. The cost to fit the bar was estimated at between $1100 and $3300. WorkCover said the retro-fitting of a safety bar might not remove all risks associated with the machine, but could provide a further safeguard for operators. It told VCAT that bump-bars were available and in use and were now a standard feature on some new machines.”

WorkSafe’s position is substantiated by its own November 2006 guidance, and the 2001 Guidance on Working Safely with Trees.  The 2001 guidance states

“While use of chippers is integral to amenity tree work, they present a constant hazard when in operation, with the potential for serious injury or death if operators become entangled or if material is thrown back during feeding.

To reduce the risk of injury or death:

  • guard the chipper’s drives and v-belts to prevent entanglement
  • make sure the chipper has a functional braking system
  • clearly mark controls and describe their function
  • ensure that controls are readily accessible so that the chipper can be shut down instantly if a problem occurs
  • ensure that the chipper has an emergency stop button.”

It would seem to be that a viable argument that the local council was not following the established safety advice of the OHS regulator at the time of the Johnstone’s injuries, was operating from a deficient state of knowledge, was using “unsafe” plant and were not applying a “safe system of work”.

Council Minutes for 17 November 2008 record that six staff undertook training in “Woodchipper Operation & Safety” in September and October 2008 so someone in Council determined there was a risk in using such machines and that training was required.  It seems extraordinary that the Council Minutes of the first meeting after Johnstone’s horrific injuries record no mention of the incident although Councillor Hulin raised “the issue of occupational health and safety” on page 188.  With the increasing legislative attention to positive safety duties of executives and the need to due diligence on workplace safety, it is unlikely that such an oversight would be tolerated in 2012.

This last point seems to be taken up by the David Johnstone’s lawyers.  A 23 July 2012 article in The Warrnambool Standard is reporting that Johnstone is considering seeking compensation from the Council in a civil law action.  Solicitor Gary Foster told the paper:

““While there has been a public outpouring of goodwill for David from not only the council, but also the broader community since the tragedy, the fact is that if such a system of work which the council now regards as proper was already in place back in September, David almost certainly would not have lost both of his hands and had his life tipped upside down.” (emphasis added]

Although Foster’s comment relates to the Council’s introduction of an administrative control, overseas safety guidance from the US and UK dated prior to the September 2011 support the use of engineering controls.

VCAT’s decision should concern safety professionals and lawyers in that

  • it ignores the existing local and international knowledge on safety devices in relation to woodchippers;
  • it prefers control options of a lesser reliability than the currently available engineering measures;
  • it argued against the advice of the OHS regulator who should be seen as the subject matter expert for this work process and plant use.

But of broader concern is that VCAT’s decision questions the authority of WorkSafe Victoria and establishes a level of safety compliance that, although “safe as far as reasonably practicable”, remains a less reliable risk control measure than the engineering solutions currently available and increasingly becoming standard safety equipment on woodchippers.

VCAT, apparently, processes dozens of appeals of WorkSafe determinations every year so there may be a safety knowledge base available in the tribunal but in the case of the Warrnambool City Council woodchipper, VCAT’s decision is curious and could set a precedent if WorkSafe does not pursue the matter further.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

29 thoughts on “Woodchipper decision could set a worrying safety precedent”

  1. I agree with Shaun. They are safe when used correctly. I have done so for over 10 years without incident. Implementation of bump bars has had unintended consequences –
    1- the feed chute is now much heavier due to bump bar mechanism – what used to be a safe easy operation to close the chute for transport (which is carreid outbetween 3 and 15 times a day) is now very heavy and awkward causing much increased manual handling risk.
    2- the chipper is now heavier overall requiring air brakes rather than electric brakes – this has necessitated a larger axle which in turn has raised the overall height of the machine. New issues have arisen from regarding height of fuel tank, fuel gauge access, fuel fill point access, air filter access, critical grease point access, maintenance point access.

    Not to mention the increased cost(purchase and maintenance), weight , complexity, operator frustration and loss of productivity.

    Chippers are no more dangerous than chainsaws when operators are trained and give them the respect they deserve. Both are lethal in th hands of the careless, untrained or unskilled(as are most tools including cars, nail guns, circular saws, guns, etc).

    I agree with the principle of making the machines safer AND easier to operate but firmly believe that \”Bump bars\” do not achieve this.

    Further thought is required on this issue to come up with more effective means of improving worker safety.

  2. It\’s obvious from the comments posted that none of you have any idea of how a chipper operates, Ed excepted. Yes, the internal of the machine has a large drum or disc spinning at high speed, powered by a big engine and is heavy to maintain its momentum so that it can chip trees. There is then an external set of feed rollers, which, once the branch or log has been fed into it, slowly feed the material into the cutting blades. The feed rollers feed material at a walking pace, it is not a violent or abrupt motion.

    Different manufacturers have different approaches to safety buttons and controls, but all have some means of stopping, and reversing the feed rollers. Most commonly it is by a bar wrapped around the machine, left to right and over the top. They also have emergency stop buttons and cords in various places. One manufacturer does offer a bump bar at the rear of the feed chute, and you are right that it gives many false alarms and is frequently bypassed.

    The real truth though, is that a bumper bar at the rear is not needed, because you should not be standing at the rear of the machine. If you do, you are in the firing line of branches that may get kicked to the side, lifted up, or chunks that may get spat out of the machine. The correct position to feed from, is the side. There are guards in place on both sides to prevent you from being hit by branches, and, most importantly, the feed roller stop bar wraps around both sides of the machine. This means that if you are feeding from the side and become entangled for whatever reason, the machine will pull your arm, leg, or whatever, onto the bar, stopping the feed and reversing the rollers. The bar is located far from the feed rollers.

    A chipper is a safe machine when safely operated, and accidents which occur generally happen when people are either untrained, or have become careless and knowingly do the wrong thing. Just like operating any piece of plant, operators must be trained, competent and careful in the machines use, or no amount of engineering solutions can protect them.

    Knee jerk reactions by people who are not in a position to know any better and think that spending a few minutes thinking on the problem allows them to come up with the ultimate solution despite no experience or knowledge of the matter simply makes things worse and more expensive for everyone, while providing no real additional safety.

  3. Yeah Col, it would be a good chance at being over-ridden/disconnected, you\’re dead right. It\’s a curly one, that\’s for sure. The stop button patrol sounds like the only sure bet but the amount of times someone has suffered a mishap while their spotter etc is distracted, well, there\’s lotsa folks with lotsa injuries out there cursing there absent minded spotter. Still, it\’s the most likely solve at this point with some finger crossing just to be sure. Maybe a remote like on long distance hose reels… the pedal option would be great if not for positioning issues. At least it\’s not like the old days with V8 direct feed chippers that would violently snatch the log/branch out of your hands & tear it full speed through the blades, all without a hint of PPE.

    1. Cheers for that Ed. Absolutely no beating your sort of experience.

      I\’ve done a fair bit of chainsaw stuff in a private capacity (a job that always has me break out in a sweat). And I\’ve made a point of being on deck to observe chipper use by pros as often as I can – the gear is truly scary.

      One operator told me that the warning mark on the chipper feeder is known as the \”Instant Sack Line\”; go beyond it and ya outta there.

      If a Stop button operator was part of the standard ops I would be recommending that person swaps with the feeder operator, and they work out a sensible interval for the swap; to divide the manual handling stuff and to keep the Stop operator alert. All that said, I reckon it\’s an operating procedure, that as you mentioned earlier, would be treated as an \”In ya dreams!\” thing by many. And so it goes.

  4. Excellent detail Ed. It would be interesting to get \”further and betters\” from ya, given your experience with a chipper. (The case seems to be another classic example of how often there is nothing \”simple\” about plenty of work safety solutions.)

    I have no doubt you\’re right that a lot of contractors would scoff at the idea of one person on the Stop button. But perhaps with chippers we are looking at a situation where we\’ve \”acclimitised\” to what is a fundamentally dangerous piece of gear being operated dangerously, i.e. with no one on the Stop button?

    More specifically, isn\’t a bump bar a pretty flawed solution that would make people feel they are \”complying\” and that\’s all?

    I say that because, from your experience wouldn\’t ya think that a bump bar on the bottom leading edge of the chipper is going to get triggered by the occasional stray branch? And wouldn\’t that just be an interlock guard system just begging to be overridden? (I\’m not a fan of the \”well don\’t over-ride it\” solution, because we know that if the bump bar actuates too often people will over-ride it.)

    It seems to me it would take a long time for the 3 grand or so to be \”sucked up\” by operating the chipper as a 2 person operation (going back to my thought that having a person standing by on the emergency stop). I\’d have also thought that given the point you made about potential for the feed operator to be snagged up well before the rollers that there is another reason to go for a person standing by on the Stop? (i.e. chance for the Stop to be hit before any further injury to the feed operator).

    Col Finnie
    finiohs

  5. Chippers by nature are an extremely dangerous bit of plant. They are on a constant feed while in operation & given productivity requirements, operators are inclined to put as much material through as possible in the shortest amount of time. One man stationed at a stop switch is unlikely… suggest that to a contractor & he will laugh in your face.
    The pedal idea is great, though in many instances the material can be of considerable length, too long to feed safely from directly beside the chipper as the limb base must be used to lift & push the log into the rollers. With the irregularity of most branches & bunches of material after the larger limbs have gone through (you will not feed a stick or branch at a time unless it is large) it is quite possible to have your hands caught up as branches twist quickly as they hit the rollers.
    Given the possibility of twisting in a way that reduces your ability to reach emergency stops as your body position limits the other arms reach, the bump bar would likely have saved this guy when his legs made contact with it.
    It\’s fairly obvious that the poor guy would have tried everything in his power to prevent his accident, so the current \”failsafes\” failed to be safe.
    Gloves are also an issue as previously stated above, as some organisations demand gloves be worn during manual tasks to reduce cuts & minor crush injuries. Great plan but the snagging problem is very real (personal experience). The speed of roller feed can catch you out, as you struggle initially to free the caught glove/hand.
    Experienced operators should ensure that their knowledge is passed to all newbies working with chippers. Educate the workers at the chipper itself & if something happens, note when it happens by saying \”see what just happened there, that was because of …\”. A tricky issue but I feel the bump bar argument should never have happened. $3000 & this debate is good for what?
    Just install the bump bars, I am dumbfounded that anyone would baulk at such a paltry sum & create this furor when you consider the lives effected & compensation cost potential. I worked in the industry for years before starting my safety career & I feel there is motivation for finding against the bump bars $$$…

  6. I am dumb founded at the decision of VCAT. It was obvious from the severity of the injury that the controls in place were inadequate. We can only hope that this judgement is appealed

    1. Hi Sue,
      It seems you may not have read the details of the VCAT decision. (see link in Rob O\’Neil\’s response above).
      I agree, it is obvious from the severity of the injury that controls were inadequate. But that doesn\’t mean the VWC recommended solution of a \’bump bar\’ would have been any better at preventing the injuries in this instance.
      Just because a control is possible does not automatically make that control the best solution, especally in the \’so far as reasonably practicable\’ approach in Victoria\’s (and now the harmonised states\’) law.
      The evidence presented to, and weighed up by, VCAT shows that the bump bar may not be a suitable option. However the combination of controls that the Council has introduced will be as good if not better in preventing injuries. And in my estimation will actually cost the council more dollars over time.

  7. Roger that Les. And it makes sense the pedal thing would have to start the cutter up. The problem seems to be the nature of the gearing of those things is they seem to need to be constantly engaged to do the scary voodoo that they do. I had a look through the VCAT thing as well and I noticed that there was consideration of a control bar on the bottom leading edge of the feeder chute, apparently the system Moreland Council has used. Even more confounding, because the point made in the VCAT ruling, that this could result in lots of inadvertent triggering of the stop, seems like it would be constant problem. An interlock just begging to be over-ridden you\’d think.

    Me, I\’m still inclined to conclude that a person standing by on the Stop button would be effective. Deal with potential of the Stop-person getting bored by swapping over jobs as many times as necessary I\’d reckon. A plus by virtue of it reducing the risk of \”feeders\” getting shagged out from that job.

    Col Finnie.

    1. As I understand it the larger machines that have these problems usually have a feeder roller assembly that \’snatches\’ the branch from the person feeding it and continues to push the branch into the cutters.
      If that is the case, and the control pedal stops these feed rollers, the branch stops feeding – no need to stop the cutters.
      Pedal just needs to be fixed far enough away so that person feeding cannot get to rollers without stepping off pedal. Hence even if snagging occurs, hands never get to rollers, let alone cutters.
      This may improve productivity over one person feeding and one \’standby\’ person as 2 people can then move between cut branches and chipper in alternating turns. Infeed rollers then only operating when the pedal is stepped on.

  8. is it possible that a feed/cradle mechanism can be developed that the braches or logs can be put into ,then the operator standing to the side can activate the feed mechanism ,I know it would be slower but I would think this is a safer one man operation

  9. What I don\’t follow here is that there appeared to be a system where one person was allocated to the stop button. Obviously the control wasn\’t activated. Was the person not at the controls?

    These chippers are scary. And I don\’t see that a control bar around the feed chute is an ideal solution. It\’s pretty obvious, given the huge variation in branches fed into a chipper that a person could be caught up in a way that makes it impossible to reach up to activate a control bar or grab those \”last ditch\” cords in front of the cutter. The idea of a pressure plate stop does seem doable, if it was a large plate, allowing for body positioning to accommodate branch sizes. Clearly that also means the plate wouldn\’t activate the stop unless the operator was starting to be taken off their feet, i.e. on their way in the chute, scary prospect in itself.

    Alternatively, a smaller pedal stop could work if the work method involved lots more trimming so the pieces being fed in were of a dimension that allowed for more precise body positioning. A smaller pedal might be more responsive to being pulled off balance.

    Still gotta say that it seems to be a good solution to have one person doing nothing other than being ready to activate the stop if a worker gets snagged on a branch. For mine, if I had to use a chipper I would insist on a person at the stop button, whether there were control bars, stop pedals or not. Good old fashioned eye contact with the person at the stop button before each feed would assure me the person was paying attention. No-one at the stop button, no feed.

    Col Finnie

    1. Hi Col,
      In reading the VCAT decision it appears that the operator in the case was working alone at the chipper. WCC approach is to allocate a second person as operator and safety watch to STOP the machine if an unsafe condition develops (eg: person feeding get snagged & pulled in). I still see issues with this as it
      (1) relies on quick reflexes of the watcher because these things infeed at a fast rate and
      (2) is so easy for people to be distracted, and the longer they stay at such a position the more likely they will become distracted.
      Hence damage could still be done following this operating approach.

      My idea of a foot pedal is actually based on the opposite operating principle – don\’t START the machine until the operator is safe. Ie: the person feeding sets up the branches THEN steps on the pedal to START the infeed. I can see that it may cause a slight drop in prodctivity but it could still then be operated by a single person.

      Then, if the operator then got snagged, they would not be able to maintain the START circuit as they were dragged off the pedal.

  10. Kevin Ive seen operators of these machines work without a partner and in a hurry ,these machines cause the branches to be pulled in very quickly as the operator pushes it in ,it appears the machine activates when the braches hit some point of the operator pushing it in relying on the operator to get clear , other industrial machines in the workplace keep the operator independant of the feed mechanism ,perhaps these machines also need to have the feed mechanism independent of the operator

  11. But Malcolm, as Kevin now points out, this was not a case of engineering vs administrative control. It was about whether a specific guard would make the machine safer or not.

    Kevin, thanks for your considered response.

  12. But Malcolm, as Kevin now points out, this was not a case of engineering vs administrative control. It was about whether a specific guard would make the machine safer or not.

    Kevin, thanks for your considered response.

  13. But Malcolm, as Kevin now points out, this was not a case of engineering vs administrative control. It was about whether a specific guard would make the machine safer or not.

    Kevin, thanks for your considered response.

  14. But Malcolm, as Kevin now points out, this was not a case of engineering vs administrative control. It was about whether a specific guard would make the machine safer or not.

    Kevin, thanks for your considered response.

  15. But Malcolm, as Kevin now points out, this was not a case of engineering vs administrative control. It was about whether a specific guard would make the machine safer or not.

    Kevin, thanks for your considered response.

  16. As indicated in all the referenced materials, especially including the text of the VCAT decision, there is no thorough understanding of how these incidents with woodchippers continue to happen. Why are we trying to prevent something that we don\’t even clearly understand?

    As a WHS professional with many years experience, I\’m concerned that, in all of the evidence given by tehnical and WHS \’experts\’ (VWC as well as independent engineers) the approach to operation and safety controls on these machines is not to ensure the safety of the operator by only starting when the operator is safe but to stop the machine when the operator is unsafe.

    With heavy manufacturing plant, in a factory environment, we generally require the operator to be clear of the machine, and in many instances install \’two hand switching\’ to ensure they are clear, BEFORE the machine starts. Why dont we take a simialr approach to these machines?

    I have had some limited exposure to these chipper machines and I estimate that the bulk of incidents occur as in the (hearsay evidence) case of the near miss where a glove was snagged by a branch as it was dragged by the infeed rollers. The open cuff of a glove is an immediate risk with \’protrusions\’ moving forward away from the body, just as loose clothing is risk in proximity to rotating. A partial fix may be to review the type and design of PPE used with these machines. Eg: a glove with a wrist fastener to eliminate th eiopen cuff and/or wear sleeves over the cuff so that there is no cuff to snag. Howevert his may still not prevent sleeves or other clothing being snaged – many of us know how easy it is to snag clothing when walking or working in bushland.

    If this \’snagin\’ could be identified as the primary (root) cause of these incidents, then an alternate safety feature would be to design a foot pedal type operational switch – deadman style; Positioned (1) far enough from the infeed rollers that a person cannot reach the rollers without releasing the foot pedal and (2) so that it requires the person feeding material into the infeed rollers to operate it.

    In one man operations this would serve to virtually eliminate the likelihood of someone being dragged into the infeed rollers much less the actual chipper as, even if they do get snagged and dragged forward, they step off the pedal and the infeed rollers stop.

    In two man operations, it may be possible that one person could operate the pedal whilst a another person placed themself at risk of being dragged into the infeed rollers. However, under the OHS law it would be criminal for the first person to operate it whilst the second was within reach of the infeed rollers.

    This approach would overcome many of the concerns argued in opposition to bump bars failing to work if a person falls forward or is dragged in such a way as to prevent the operation of the bump bar. It may also prevent, or at least deter, the various actions described in the \’video\’ evidence cited in the VCAT case.

    1. Les, I like your point about retrofitting safety devices, interlocks and bars instead of redesigning the machine to eliminate those risks. Failing a redesign, the foot switch seems to have merit.

  17. You\’re right Rob, there was no \’evidence\’ but even a bush mechanic could tell you a physical gaurd will always outweight documented dribble that relies on a human being to implement!

  18. I have had a good look at the VCAT hearing report. The issue of the suitability and efficacy of additional engineering control measures was considered by the tribunal. The woodchipper in question, an Aust Chip 225, already had many safety controls as listed in the hearing. The tribunal seems to have decided that the control measure recommended (required?) by WorkSafe Victoria in its improvement notice provided no greater injury prevention than the existing engineering controls and the administrative controls implemented by the Warrnambool City Council (WCC).

    So Rob is right. It is not an either/or situation on the hierarchy of controls. As in most circumstances, risk is being reduced by a combination of control measures.

    My contention continues to apply though, that the VCAT case shows WorkSafe Victoria is not always going to be the organisation that determines what is safe “as far as is reasonably practicable” and that Victorian businesses and, as the WHS laws are rolled out, Australian businesses will not be able to rely on their State OHS regulators to determine compliance.

    It is also useful to note that the action that WCC took was not the result of a prosecution but simply the imposition of an improvement notice. WHS laws allow for appeals against regulator OHS decisions and this is a positive option but any appeal should not be undertaken by a business without them being prepared for a potentially long and involved process. The WCC action was resolved in less than 12 months, unless WorkSafe Victoria takes further action, but required legal representation, strong evidence of the system of work, additional time commitment and personnel resources, and all the costs involved with legal action.

    The tribunal hearing is a also a slap at the authority of WorkSafe Victoria and the Inspector, Glenn Woods, who said that

    ““by not having sufficient emergency stop devices located in accessible locations, a person who operated the Aust Chip 225 wood chipper could become entangled in the item of plant during operation, as the operator may not be able to cease the operation of the item of plant. This may lead to serious injury to persons who are unable to activate the emergency stop devices”.

    The evidence of Roger Lim was that the Aust Chip 225 had sufficient safety devices:

    “there are emergency stop switches located immediately above the sides of the in-feed chute. They are prominent, clearly and durably marked. It is an electromechanical hardwired system and cannot be adversely affected by electrical or electronic circuit malfunction. This meets Regulations 3.5.6(2) and 3.5.27 (2) of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2007. Actuation of the emergency stop switch stops the feed rollers instantly and reset of the switch restarts the rollers. The location marking and operation of the emergency stop switches are considered to be adequate for the task being undertaken”.

    Clearly WorkSafe and its Inspectors needs to take a much more detailed analysis of plant safety prior to imposing safety improvements.

    To tie this article in with other safety themes in SafetyAtWorkBlog, it is worth wondering how such an appeal process could apply to an instance of psychosocial harm or workplace bullying where international and local evidence is more contentious and one is dealing with a situation where there is no emergency stop button.

  19. Kevin, before commenting on this decision why not read the actual text? It is available here: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/vic/VCAT/2012/947.html

    You will see that contrary your assumption, the decision did not prefer administrative controls to engineering controls. The finding, based primarily on the evidence of an expert called by the Council in this case but often called by Worksafe, was that there was no evidence that the proposed control reduced risk.

  20. Kevin, before commenting on this decision why not read the actual text? It is available here: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/vic/VCAT/2012/947.html

    You will see that contrary your assumption, the decision did not prefer administrative controls to engineering controls. The finding, based primarily on the evidence of an expert called by the Council in this case but often called by Worksafe, was that there was no evidence that the proposed control reduced risk.

  21. Kevin, before commenting on this decision why not read the actual text? It is available here: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/vic/VCAT/2012/947.html

    You will see that contrary your assumption, the decision did not prefer administrative controls to engineering controls. The finding, based primarily on the evidence of an expert called by the Council in this case but often called by Worksafe, was that there was no evidence that the proposed control reduced risk.

  22. Kevin, before commenting on this decision why not read the actual text? It is available here: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/vic/VCAT/2012/947.html

    You will see that contrary your assumption, the decision did not prefer administrative controls to engineering controls. The finding, based primarily on the evidence of an expert called by the Council in this case but often called by Worksafe, was that there was no evidence that the proposed control reduced risk.

  23. Kevin, before commenting on this decision why not read the actual text? It is available here: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/vic/VCAT/2012/947.html

    You will see that contrary your assumption, the decision did not prefer administrative controls to engineering controls. The finding, based primarily on the evidence of an expert called by the Council in this case but often called by Worksafe, was that there was no evidence that the proposed control reduced risk.

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