Tuesday 15th September 2015
Could your business be
fined this way?
|In today's Health & Safety Bulletin:|
- Victorian employer fined $375K because of its unsafe work systems
It turns out bad things come to those who wait – at least, they do in the workplace health and safety environment.
Last week, the Supreme Court of Victoria brought down the gavel on a plastic engineering company that failed to control and secure plant that could have prevented not one, but three serious injuries.
The Victorian regulator had fined them a total of $375,000 for the incidents. If that sounds like it’s on the high end of things, you’re not wrong.|
And sure – sometimes the regulators might be a little overzealous, which is why businesses have the right to appeal a fine. But in this case, the Supreme Court wasn’t having a bar of it.
Why this workplace was a six-figure hazard
Dotmar Epp Pty Ltd engineered plastic products with the use of a lathe. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty hazardous piece of plant when it’s in full spin. The kind of hazard you’d expect a business to identify and manage.
Obviously, plant’s not a risk you can eliminate or easily substitute. That means your next best step is to isolate it or enclose it to reduce the risk. And that’s what Dotmar had in place…. sort of.
The lathe came with interlocking guard doors. If these were opened, the machinery stopped – so long as the interlock switch wasn’t overridden.
But that’s exactly what Dotmar did for years, meaning workers were putting their hands in proximity of dangerous moving parts.
When a WorkSafe inspector came through and issued them with an Improvement Notice to restore the safety mechanisms, they complied and fixed the problem. For a little while. Then, they bypassed the interlock again.
In 2009, a worker crushed the tip of his finger in the lathe. In 2010, a second worker received a broken thumb.
Meanwhile, a third worker was injured the same year. He was drilling holes into a plastic product while it was still attached to a piece of moving plant – yet another risk that no steps were taken to eliminate or control.
When a safety regulator visits your workplace, this is one of the first things they’ll be looking for...
|Why the price was right|
In appealing the substantial fine, Dotmar argued that the charges were “manifestly excessive”.
The Supreme Court wasn’t persuaded. The original fine had been determined not just in the context of the injuries and the lack of controls to prevent them, but in light of several years where the business had repeatedly and wilfully set out to defy proper safety requirements.
Although there wasn’t a fatality (or even an exceptionally serious injury) the Court confirmed that the gravity of a breach isn’t necessarily decided by its consequences.
Dotmar hadn’t helped its case by leaving it a long time to enter their guilty plea to the original charges, either. They were entered on the first day of what was to have been a trial.
Though Dotmar had tried to clean up their act since, and this was their first conviction for health and safety breaches, this was of little help either. Especially in light of the sustained and serious breach.
So Dotmar continued to be stuck with the fine – and the costs of the appeal on top.
What you can take away
This case reinforces that:
- Safe operating procedures for your business are essential. This should obviously come off the back of a dedicated hazard identification and risk assessment process, that lets you know where the dangers are on your site, and how you can eliminate or control them.
- Workers should be trained and inducted in those safe operating procedures. In Dotmar’s case, a worker who was later injured himself was given responsibility for training others in unsafe use of plant.
- Defiance of a regulator, or even of an obvious ‘common sense’ health and safety principle, will be an aggravating factor if you are prosecuted – even if no one is seriously injured or killed.
- Transforming your health and safety regime after being prosecuted counts for virtually nothing. It’s more cost efficient to implement those standards before the regulator comes calling.
For Dotmar, these are expensive lessons. Yours don’t have to be.
- If your business is prosecuted, reach a decision on how you will plead early. Entering a guilty plea at the start of a trial doesn’t win over a court – the costs of that defended hearing have already been sunk.
Hazard identification, how to understand the hierarchy of control for workplace risks, plant safety management, and risk assessment are all covered inside the Health & Safety Handbook. If you don’t feel like you’re quite on top of your workplace’s safety obligations yet, it’s better now than later.
Editor, Health & Safety Bulletin
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