On 7 June 2023, a company was fined $60,000 in the Warwick Magistrates Courts for a section 32 (Category 2) offence pursuant to the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (‘the Act’), having failed to comply with its primary health and safety duty pursuant to section 19(1) of the Act.

The defendant owned and operated a sawmill in a small rural town where it employed various workers. The defendant’s directors were based in Victoria and the sawmill did not have an onsite operations manager from about August 2019, when the last site manager resigned. One of the machines used at the sawmill was the chipper, through which timber offcuts were fed in order to be turned into wood chips. The conveyor belt of the chipper would regularly become jammed with timber offcuts. When that occurred, the blockage needed to be cleared promptly to avoid the need to shut down production. No worker was specifically allocated the task of clearing blockages of the chipper. There was no procedure in place for how such blockages were to be cleared and workers did not receive training in how to do this. Workers had developed their own ways to clear blockages, by using a metal pole to clear offcuts, and it was not uncommon for them to stand up on the frame of the machine to access the area.

On 30 November 2020, a worker attempted to clear a blockage on the chipper conveyer belt at the instruction of another worker. The worker stood on the frame of the chipper, leant over, and used a metal bar to attempt to clear the blockage. He did not turn the machine off before doing this. As the worker attempted to clear the blockage, his right foot became caught in the exposed chain that drives the conveyor belt. Despite wearing steel capped safety boots, he sustained serious injury to toes on his right foot, including a near complete amputation of his big toe, a degloving injury and fracture to another toe.

The investigation revealed that the defendant had a number of safety documents in place at the time of the incident, including safe work procedures, but those documents did not deal with the process for clearing blockages and workers were not aware of them. The chain drive of the conveyor belt was not covered by a guard to prevent workers coming into contact with the chain drive. The chain drive had, for a time, been covered by guarding, but it had been removed and was absent for an unknown period, prior to the incident on 30 November 2020.

The defendant was charged with a Category 2 offence on the basis it failed to implement reasonably practicable controls to manage the risk, namely by not implementing guarding on the chain drive of the chipper, a safe work procedure requiring that the chipper be shut down before attempting to clear blockages, and training and instructing workers in relation to the safe use of the chipper.

In sentencing the defendant, his Honour Acting Magistrate Cridland had regard to the sentencing principles in section 9 of the Penalties and Sentences Act 1992, in particular the need to punish the offender to an extent that is just in all the circumstances. It was accepted that the defendant had entered a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity, was a good corporate citizen, had no prior convictions, and had taken steps to rectify its breach at an early stage.

His Honour observed that general deterrence looms large and referred to the ongoing medical and mental health issues experienced by the injured worker, as set out in his victim impact statement. It was observed that the community generally denounces this conduct.

Previous interactions with, and notices issued by, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland were accepted as being relevant on sentencing, to the extent that this should have drawn the defendant’s attention to the risk, but this was not regarded as an aggravating feature in determining the penalty to be imposed.

Consideration was given to the unusual set of circumstances the defendant faced in the lead up to the incident, with management personnel based in Melbourne unable to oversee the operations due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and the inability to recruit a replacement manager. His Honour did not accept this as a mitigating factor, noting the defendant’s ongoing duty to maintain a safe workplace as set out in the legislation and relevant Code of Practice, although accepted the impact of COVID-19 was a matter to consider.

His Honour observed that the defendant is a significant employer in a small community and had demonstrated community involvement. The accountant’s letter provided, and the indication that the company had limited capacity to pay a large fine, were also matters taken into consideration.

In light of these factors and the comparable decisions referred to by the parties, His Honour imposed a fine of $60,000, along with professional costs and the filing fee, which was referred to SPER. No conviction was recorded.

OWHSP contact: enquiries@owhsp.qld.gov.au

Court Report

Agriculture, forestry and fishing
Date of offence
Partial amputation of big toe on right foot, degloving and fracture to other toe on right foot
Warwick Magistrates Court
Magistrate or judge
Acting Magistrate Cridland
Decision date
Maximum fine available
$150,000 (15,000 penalty units)
Professional and legal costs
Court costs
In default period
Time to pay
Referred to SPER
Conviction recorded