A produce picking business was charged with an offence pursuant to s 32 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (the ‘Act’) for breaching the duty held under s 19 of the Act. On 2 October 2020, the defendant pleaded guilty and was sentenced in the Townsville Magistrates Court.
The defendant, a sole trader, operated a produce picking business specialising in picking of pumpkins and watermelons at various rural farms in North Queensland. He employed approximately 200 workers annually, primarily holidaying backpackers, to undertake the work. In addition to these workers, the defendant employed several supervisors, experienced pickers, who managed the picking activity at the farms. The workers were to be trained and inducted in the activity by the defendant and his supervisors.
In late October 2017, the defendant employed a backpacker who had recently arrived in Australia to undertake picking work. That worker was not inducted into the defendant’s work system though was shown how to undertake the picking work by the defendant and the experienced workers in his work team.
The worker was carrying out picking work on his fourth day with the defendant’s business, at a farm in North Queensland, when he collapsed and subsequently died as a result of heat related illness. An investigation by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (‘WHSQ’) revealed the defendant’s system for instructing his workers, and in particular newly commencing workers, was inadequate with regard to heat related illness. It was identified there was insufficient information provided with regard to the requirements for hydration and nutrition to alleviate the effects of working in a hot and humid environment. The investigation also revealed the defendant did not consider whether there was a need to provide or organise shelter for his workers at clients’ farms or to organise and plan how the picking work could be undertaken outside the hottest period of the day.
His Honour accepted the defendant’s systems were inadequate, observing there was only one line in the induction document on workers feeling heat affected, yet there was a whole paragraph dedicated to prohibiting workers listening to music. The Magistrate found the defendant had become complacent. Over a lengthy period of time, no incidents had occurred, and he wrongly believed that his systems were sufficient when they were not. The information provided to workers was insufficient to identify heat related illness. The deceased worker had been displaying obvious signs on the day of his collapse, and had heat stroke, yet no action was taken.
His Honour noted it was the defendant’s responsibility to ensure the workers he employed had sufficient knowledge of heat illness and how to manage it. He accepted the defendant was remorseful for his offending and had implemented post-incident measures that, if followed, would mean a future offence would be unlikely.
In mitigation, his Honour accepted the defendant was of good character, had no previous convictions for a like offence (noting he had been operating for 23 years), had co-operated with the investigation and had entered an early plea of guilty. Given the impact that the recording of a conviction would have, given the defendant interacted with immigration authorities in sponsoring workers to come to Australia, His Honour ordered that no conviction be recorded.
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Sections 19(1) and 32, Work Health and Safety Act 2011