On 18 May 2021, a family owned tile company pleaded guilty and 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 19(1) of the Act.
The defendant specialised in the production and supply of pool tiles and tiling products. Wastewater created during the course of production of tiles at the defendant’s workplace was collected and filtered by a filter press machine (‘the machine’).
The machine consisted of a series of plates or ‘baffles’ that could be opened and closed using a hydraulic ram. The baffles closed slowly, taking approximately 37 seconds to fully close from an open position. Once the ‘close’ button was activated the baffles continues to close, without the need for the button to be continually depressed. Each morning the machine was cleaned, which involved opening the baffles and scraping waste material from between them. Occasionally water would begin to spray out of the machine during use, indicating water flow was restricted and requiring intervention from workers. When that occurred, workers would press the ‘close’ button to close the baffles together more tightly to re-pressurise the baffles and seek to stop the water spraying. Addressing that issue did not ordinarily involve the baffles being opened.
On 25 March 2019, a 17 year old worker, who had been employed by the defendant for approximately three weeks, was working nearby on another machine when he observed the machine spraying water and took the initiative to seek to resolve the issue himself. He had previously received some initial instruction in relation to this activity, but was not being directly supervised at the time. The worker proceeded to open the baffles to approximately halfway to drain the water. He then pressed the close button and the baffles started to close. As the baffles were closing, he observed what he believed to be a blockage between two of the baffles and reached in with his right hand to attempt to clear the blockage. As a result, the thumb and two fingers on his right hand became crushed between the closing baffles. The worker sustained an amputation of his thumb to the interphalangeal joint and an amputation of his middle finger to the proximal interphalangeal joint.
The defendant was charged with failing to comply with its health and safety duty through failing to appropriately and adequately train, instruct and supervise its young and inexperienced workers.
In sentencing the defendant, her Honour Magistrate Coates acknowledged the worker was 17 years and 9 months old at the time of the incident, with the young worker having been employed by the company at the request of his mother, a long-term employee of the defendant. Her Honour observed that the worker had not been tasked to clean the machine, but he had been instructed that if water began to spray out of the machine this would need to be addressed and he was not being directly supervised. Her Honour referred to the Children and Young Workers Code of Practice 2006 and observed it was absolutely foreseeable that a young person may act impulsively in these circumstances.
Her Honour considered the report from an orthopedic surgeon which outlined the nature of the workers injury, including that he had been assessed as having a 24% whole person impairment, but had recovered exceptionally well and required no further operative treatment. While it was acknowledged the worker had narrower employment prospects due to his injury, he had proven to be resilient and had successfully secured work in a call centre.
Her Honour had regard to the defendant’s very early guilty plea and the significant post incident steps taken by the defendant, which included support to the injured worker and his mother, the purchase of a new water filtration system, the employment of a work health and safety supervisor, additional training for employees and the implementation of a new training system and procedures. It was observed that the defendant was otherwise a well-behaved corporate citizen, having no prior work health and safety convictions.
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Sections 19(1) and 32 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011