On 22 July 2021, a concrete manufacturing company was sentenced in the Brisbane Magistrates Court for breaching section 32 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (‘the Act’), having failed to comply with its health and safety duty pursuant to section 21 of the Act as a person with management or control of fixtures, fittings or plant at a workplace.
The defendant conducted a business at a workplace in Seventeen Mile Rocks, which included the manufacture of concrete products for large civil construction projects. The factory had in operation a production line (referred to as “line 3”) for the manufacture of various sizes of concrete deck beams. The length of the line allowed for multiple products to be cast at one time, with gaps between them.
As part of the process of manufacturing concrete components, steel cables were run through the length of moulds and stressed to the specified tension for the product, using a stressing machine. Cables were regularly joined between products cast in the same line to tailor to the mould sizes, with cables held in cable joiners with a barrel and wedge piece. Inside each wedge was a series of ridges or ‘teeth’ which allowed the wedge to grip the cable. After the steel cables were stressed, concrete was then poured over the cables in the mould. When the concrete had reached minimum transfer strength and was cured, the stress on the cables was released. This process was referred to as de-stressing and occurred by firstly applying an additional amount of stress to the cables to allow locking nuts to be unwound, after which hydraulic rams could be retracted, releasing stress from the cables.
On 13 May 2019, a worker was standing in a pit at the end of line 3, unwinding locking nuts as part of the process of de-stressing cables, when a steel cable under tension slipped free from the components of a cable joiner and struck the worker through a gap at the end of the stressing machine. The worker’s right leg was impaled by two strands of wire from the cable and he received a puncture wound to his right forearm from a wire.
The wedges and barrel from which the cable had slipped free were inspected following the incident. The investigation concluded that rust and, potentially, dirt on the teeth of the wedges did not allow for the proper function of the wedges to grip the cable such that, in that condition, they were not suitable for use.
Prior to the incident, the defendant had a procedure which identified the need to ensure that wedges were free from dirt and other foreign matter before use. However, there was no system in place for inspecting and maintaining the condition of barrels and wedges. After the incident the defendant welded a steel plate across the gap at the end of the stressing machine to prevent cables from striking workers. The defendant also implemented a system of inspection and maintenance of barrels and wedges used to hold steel cables and a procedure for de-stressing of manufactured concrete products.
The defendant was charged with failing to comply with its health and safety duty through, amongst other things, failing to adequately guard the stressing machine and to ensure, through a system of regular inspection, that the wedges used to hold cables were in serviceable condition so that cables did not inadvertently slip/release.
In sentencing the defendant, Magistrate Quinn had regard to the aim of the legislation being to protect workers, with any breach of the legislation being serious. His Honour recognised there was considerable public interest in ensuring, as much as possible, that there was zero possibility of workers being injured in the workplace and that an employee could be confident when they go to work that the workplace is safe.
His Honour remarked that it was clear that there was more the defendant could have done in this case and ought to have contemplated in the first instance prior to the incident. It was observed that the company did have in place procedures and a number of protective features that did not go far enough, with the incident that occurred being foreseeable to the company. His Honour acknowledged that a serious injury was occasioned to an employee of the company, but accepted that the company was not blasé or cavalier in respect of its workplace.
His Honour took into account the defendant’s early guilty plea, showing remorse and cooperation, with the penalty to be lesser as a consequence. It was observed that the defendant had no previous convictions under the work health and safety legislation and was otherwise a good corporate citizen and generally responsible employer. His Honour had regard to the steps taken by the defendant post-incident to support the injured worker after the incident and noted that, although there was no victim impact statement before the court, it was understood there was no lasting injury to the worker. His Honour considered the significant post-incident improvements made by the defendant to ensure the safety of this process and workers, including the installing a protective plate on the machine, and that the company ought to be given significant benefit in light of this. It was noted that there had not been any subsequent incidents, which showed that the steps taken by the company to rectify the fault had been successful and went to the sense of responsibility of the company.
His Honour noted he was assisted by the comparative cases placed before him. His Honour acknowledged that no two comparatives referred to were on all fours with each other, but each resulted in significant fines.
Regard was had to the principles in section 9 of the Penalties and Sentences Act 1992 (Qld), including the maximum penalty for the offence, which was observed to demonstrate the seriousness with which the legislature regarded the offending. His Honour identified there was significant public interest in ensuring that where a company or employer can be seen to have fallen short in its responsibilities, that the court on behalf of the community shows its concern for the lack of proper protections. His Honour imposed a fine of $68,000 and a conviction was not recorded.
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Sections 21 and 32 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011