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When a day on the job turns to tragedy.

When a day on the job turns to tragedy. (Last Updated On: February 24, 2016)

In 2014, the last words Paul Smith spoke were to his colleague, telling him not to do what he was about to do. He was then sucked into a stormwater drain where he drowned.

Mr Smith, a supervisor at Lucas Heights Waste Management and Recycling Centre (The Centre), was well known for his safe work practices. He was said to be exceptionally water conscious and always followed protocol. So what went wrong? Had the company neglected to provide safe practices of work or was this a random act with devastating results?

Tuesday last week, the Glebe Corners Court heard the story of how Mr Smith was on a job clearing a blocked storm water drain when the tragedy happened. The Court was also reviewing evidence as to whether the company had accurate health and safety policies and procedures in place.

The Centre was an SITA operated company and throughout the trial, the Corners Court found many accurate health and safety protocols were in place. The below highlights some of the safe work practices in place, but unfortunately, it appears Mr Smith did not adhere to them on this particular occasion.

  • Although it was common procedure for employees to enter water to clear blocked drains, the policy stated workers were not to enter any water above ‘gumboot height’. Unfortunately, Mr Smith did not adhere to this as at the time of entering the drain, the water was at waist height
  • It was proven Mr Smith was indeed well aware of the ‘gumboot rule’ and in fact, instructed other workers on the rule during training sessions
  • SITA has a ‘code brown’ policy whereby in the event of extreme weather, all employees must head indoors. Considering the weather conditions on the day, Mr Smith was well within his rights and the company protocol to call a ‘code brown’
  • Although it was well known significant fines could apply if contaminated water leaked from storm water drains, the Corners Court ruled this was never mentioned to Mr Smith prior to being asked to sort out the drain, meaning he took it on his own volition to enter the drain

The inquest into this tragedy continues.

What other businesses can learn from this

  1. A key take away for any business, particularly those who function in hazardous conditions regularly, is to ensure all health and safety policies and procedures, along with safe work practices are reviewed and communicated on a regular basis
  2. Conduct recurring meetings to provide workers with the opportunity to identify concerns discovered throughout their course of work, while allowing you, as the employer, to understand and change procedures accordingly
  3. In-depth training is also a major requirement of any workplace, but particularly in hazardous environments or where machinery is an important function in a role.

Did you know?

Safe Work Australia estimates that 35% of all workplace fatalities in 2013 were the result of a vehicle incident. The same industry body also discovered an astonishing result that during the same year there were a total of 531,800 workplace related injuries and disease.

The chart below shows interesting statistics on work related fatalities over the past three years. The figure for fatalities spiked in 2015, with almost double the amount at this time last year. As it stands today, 2016 is on track for a record low year in work related fatalities.

Worker fatalities 2013-15

Source: SafeWork Australia

The best thing you can do as an employer is to ensure the wellbeing of yourself and your workers. Do not become one of these statistics.

If you are uncertain of your obligations and responsibilities as an employer, call Employsure today on 1300 651 415. As industry leaders, we will visit your workplace, conduct a complete health and safety assessment, provide a corrective action plan along with supportive documents in-line with the Health and Safety Acts, and provide ongoing advice and support to ensure you remain compliant.

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