$180k Fine for Accident That Left Student with Broken Spine ‘Not Enough’ Says WHS Boss

Published September 10, 2019 (last updated July 17, 2020) -

The ACT’s work safety chief says a $180,000 penalty is not enough, as a Canberra developer was fined after a 16-year-old school student fell and broke his neck at the developer’s worksite.

The ACT Industrial Court fined the developer on Monday over the 2016 incident. The developer had pleaded guilty to breaching workplace health and safety obligations.

The student, at the worksite as part of a school program, was on a ladder next to an open void when he was called to come down by a worker. As he descended the ladder, he stepped backwards into the hole and fell six metres.

As a consequence, he broke his neck and injured his spine, and has suffered ongoing pain ever since.

The court heard that the student has been unable to pursue his dream to become a carpenter, and has only been able to study part time.

Magistrate Glenn Theakston noted the safety procedures and measures at the worksite around the open voids were inadequate.

“They (construction sites) are not simple and stable environments,” Magistrate Theakston said.

“Falling through an unmarked and uncovered void was certainly not a remote possibility, but rather a real possibility.

“I note that the defendant concedes that this risk is notorious.”

The student was on site with a contractor. Another contractor was also working on the site. Both companies have been penalised $132,000 each, and have agreed to court-enforceable undertakings.

However, the developer was in court after being charged with breaching safety laws.

In handing down his judgement, Magistrate Theakston noted the company had addressed some but not all of the issues with the voids.

“The voids could have very easily have been covered had the defendant, through its officers, insisted that occur,” he said.

“The defendant had a range of simple measures available to it to persuade Feel Style to take such action.”

The Magistrate also found that even though the developer misunderstood the student to be an apprentice, and not on work experience, and the signage at the sight inappropriate, he found the developer’s offending to be at the lower end of the scale.

The maximum fine is $1.5m.

However, the ACT’s work safety commissioner Greg Jones said he had expected a fine twice as large.

“WorkSafe had an expectation of a more substantial deterrent,” Jones said.

“We were thinking that this fine was a little bit underdone, we were expecting a higher penalty to provide a deterrent effect on that.

“We were very … concerned that any worker, especially a young worker, can be injured in a situation which is very easily avoidable by having voids or risks of falls from heights appropriately managed on site.”

The developer, who made a turnover and profit of $22m and $565,000 respectfully last year, has been given 18 months to pay the penalty.

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