Court hands employer six-figure fine over apprentice's death

Find out what misconduct led to an 'unsafe work environment'

Court hands employer six-figure fine over apprentice's death

The Melbourne County Court convicted and fined a company $600,000 following the suffocation of its apprentice, the WorkSafe Victoria reported.

Before the Court handed down the decision on 24 June, the road tank manufacturer earlier pleaded guilty to a single charge of the failure to ensure the safety of its workplace and without health risk.

Key events leading to the accident

In October 2018, the Court heard that the apprentice, working at the factory for less than two weeks, was tasked to clean out the inside of a tanker. According to WorkSafe, the apprentice died of asphyxiation after entering the tanker to conduct the work.

The government further reported that a day before the apprentice’s work, another employee left a welder inside the tanker along with a wire feeder, which leaked argon leading to reduced oxygen in the confined space.

ABC News further reported that the County Court heard that the tragedy probably happened approximately half an hour later when another worker noticed that the apprentice went inside the tanker. The news outlet further said that the apprentice’s colleagues tried to perform CPR, but the young man died at the scene.

Court’s decision

The Court said it was reasonably practicable for the company to have prevented the situation and ensured its employees’ safety. According to the Court, the manufacturer could have a safety system of work that required a qualified welding inspector to regularly monitor and maintain equipment in the company.

Moreover, it said that the company could have required workers to store the welder and wire feeder outside the tanker when not used and remind the workers to turn off the argon gas main after using it.  

“A strong message needs to be sent to companies which place employees and others in highly dangerous situations, such as was the case here, that they must do their utmost to ensure the safety of those persons,” the Court said. “If they do not meet their obligations in this regard, then they should know that they will be met with strong punishment.”

Adam Watson, acting WorkSafe executive director of health and safety, said the incident was a tragedy that could have been prevented.

“The dangers of working in confined spaces are well known, and there is no excuse for employers who fail to control the risks,” he said.

“This incident highlights just how important simple measures such as maintenance and storage procedures are to keeping workers and workplaces safe. Sadly a failure to do so in this case cost a young man his life,” Watson added.

Reminder for employers

Following the company’s tragedy, WorkSafe Australia listed vital points that employers should remember to control the risks of working in confined spaces. These include:

  • Considering whether the work can be done another way without entering the confined space. For example, provide outlets and facilities for cleaning to eliminate the need for entry.
  • Testing the atmosphere to quantify the level of oxygen, atmospheric contaminants, and any flammable gas or vapour present in the space. Then you can determine appropriate risk controls.
  • Ensuring employees do not enter a confined space unless they have been issued an entry permit for the area and a stand-by person is watching them work outside the space.
  • Establishing entry and exit procedures for the confined space and emergency procedures. Ensure these are communicated to your employees.
  • Putting signs on or near any confined space and at each entry point to warn that only people who have been adequately trained and have an entry permit may enter.
  • Ensuring appropriate respiratory protective equipment (air-supplied or air-purifying) is used where required.
  • Providing employees with enough information, instruction, and training to do their work safely and without health risks. This may include, for example, training in hazard identification and risk control methods, entry permit procedures, emergency procedures, and use of respiratory protective equipment.

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