On 20 October 2023, an electricity entity was sentenced in the Rockhampton Magistrates Court for breaching section 40C of the Electrical Safety Act 2002 (Qld) (‘the Act’), having failed to comply with its duty under section 29(1)(a) of the Act to ensure that its works were electrically safe, with the failure exposing an individual to a risk of serious injury or death.
The ‘works’ of the defendant included an overhead power line, and its supporting structures (such as power poles) which spanned a field of a pineapple farm at Lake Mary Pines, near Yeppoon. The power pole was installed in the ground and kept vertical by several stay wires, each of which were separately attached to the ground in the vicinity of the power pole. At the bottom of each stay wire were guards, which obscured that portion of the stay wires underneath the guard.
On 14 July 2021, workers at Lake Mary Pines were picking pineapples. The workers were using a tractor and harvester or were otherwise in the vicinity of that machinery as it was operating, collecting pineapples. The top of the harvester was approximately 4.36 metres high. The tractor and harvester passed underneath the overhead power line, and the top of the harvester either contacted, or came in very close proximity to, the overhead power line. One worker was electrocuted and died shortly thereafter, while another five workers received electric shocks and were hospitalised. Some of the workers suffer continuing physical and psychological health issues because of the incident.
Subsequent investigations identified that the power line had dropped in height due to a broken stay wire, which had corroded over time and broken. The worst of the corrosion of the wire occurred at a location underneath the stay guard, which sat over the wire when in position. When the pole was straightened the following day, the power line height in the vicinity of the machine rose from a height of approximately 4.52 metres to approximately 7.80 metres. The precise date when the stay wire broke is not known.
The charge arose out of a failure by the defendant to have in place a system of routine visual inspection of the entire length of stay wires that attached to and supported its power poles in a vertical position, including any portions of a stay wire covered by a guard. The relevant power pole had been inspected 10 months earlier and corrosion was noted and given a priority rating of ‘Priority 3’, which did not require attendance or rectification within a particular time frame, and so was not attended to prior to the incident on 14 July 2021. At the time, the inspection process did not require inspection of the stay wire underneath the stay guard. Accordingly, this was not done on 10 September 2020 and the stay wire was inspected to the extent of what could be seen of the wire outside of the stay guard. After the incident on 14 July 2021, the defendant amended its inspection process to require routine inspection of stay wires underneath the stay guard.
The prosecution argued that the defendant’s duty, in the context of the Act, was fundamental to the statutory scheme and that other duties, imposed on businesses and individuals, flow from their interaction with the defendant’s works, and, further, that this defendant, out of anybody in the industry, would be aware of the catastrophic outcomes to persons interacting with live power lines. Here there was a fatality as well as serious injury to a further five workers, which speaks to the objective seriousness of the offending.
The defendant, through its legal representatives, expressed deep sympathy to those involved, and advanced many matters in mitigation, including much community work and various safety initiatives, submitting that the defendant took positive and active steps to try to ensure safety.
In sentencing, Magistrate Beckinsale noted an entire group of workers were exposed to the risk of death or serious injury. Her Honour also considered the Victim Impact Statements provided by the injured workers, which she found to be heartbreaking, with many suffering post-electric shock myalgia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and that their lives will never be the same. Her Honour remarked that the loss to the deceased’s family must be unbearable, however also noted that while the outcome is so devastating to so many, it must not overwhelm the sentencing exercise, and that the penalty under this legislative regime does not represent the value of who or what they lost, and only relevant matters may be taken into account. Her Honour also determined that an absence of knowledge does not mitigate the seriousness of the offence, and nor was she required to apportion blame.
Ultimately, Magistrate Beckinsale accepted that the defendant is a good corporate citizen and that there were significant mitigating features, including early and ongoing cooperation, and an early plea of guilty with demonstrated remorse; those matters had to be weighed against the seriousness of the offending which resulted in a fatality and serious injury to five others, and that this was not a first-time offender. Her Honour imposed a fine in the amount of $300,000, and exercised her discretion to not record a conviction. The defendant was also ordered to pay $1,500 in legal professional costs and the $101.40 filing fee.
OWHSP contact: email@example.com
Sections 29(1)(a) and 40C of the Electrical Safety Act 2002 (Qld)