CEO gets five-figure fine over workplace safety failure

Find out why upper management took the fall in this case

CEO gets five-figure fine over workplace safety failure

A Queensland court had recently sentenced a CEO for breach of work health and safety rules after he pleaded guilty to the accusations against him.

According to the judgment, the CEO failed to exercise due diligence to ensure the company complied with its primary health and safety duty, which exposed its workers to the risk of death or serious injury. Find out why upper management had to suffer the consequences.

The company produced bags of fertilizer at its factory. The bags were moved along a conveyor belt to be sealed, flattened and stacked onto pallets by machinery. Workers were required to inspect the bags as they moved along the conveyor belt.

According to Queensland’s Office of the Work Health and Safety Prosecutor (OWHSP), dangerous sections of the conveyor belt did not have sufficient guarding in place. There were no visual markings to identify an exclusion zone to minimise the potential for workers to interact with the moving conveyor. No risk assessment or safe operating procedures had been developed regarding the work done in proximity to the moving conveyor.

OWHSP noted that workers encountered a risk of injury from falling onto or contacting the moving conveyor. For over more than year, it was found that the CEO failed to exercise due diligence to ensure the company took reasonably practicable steps to address the risk. This failure exposed workers to the risk of death or serious injury.

The incident

Around March 2020, a worker who worked near a dangerous conveyor section became partly trapped in a part of the machinery designed to flatten bags. By the time another worker found him, he was unconscious and unable to be revived. His injuries included a severe traumatic brain injury that resulted in his death.

What is a CEO’s duty to ensure workplace safety?

The court considered the “seriousness” of the CEO’s “failure of duty.” It noted that “the buck stopped with him in terms of decision-making” at the company.

It found that the risk of harm to workers was “real and foreseeable” because of the lack of security measures that would ensure the workers weren’t near the dangerous zones of the workplace.

“Workers are entitled to expect the highest level of protection, as far as reasonably practicable, from risks to their health and safety,” the court said.

It considered several factors to assess the CEO’s conduct and preparation to avoid the incident, including the length of time to eliminate the risks, the presence of any policies to prevent workplace injuries, and the difficulty of achieving or implementing the said measures.

The court’s decision vis-à-vis the CEO’s character

The court found that the CEO had no prior convictions and had otherwise led an “unblemished” career. It noted that he “was personally affected by the worker’s death and had given a substantial level of support to the worker’s family.” It said that “since the worker’s death, the CEO had taken steps to ensure the company had addressed the risk presented.” The CEO had also entered an early guilty plea.

Thus, the court determined a fine of $60,000 due to the defendant’s demonstrated remorse and otherwise good character. It also decided against recording a conviction. The decision was handed down in April.

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