A Perth-based sheet metal fabricator, PGQW Pty Ltd (PGQW), has received one of the highest fines ever handed down under Western Australia’s occupational health and safety laws. In an important reminder for supervisors, the company’s manager responsible for overseeing safety measures also received a sizeable personal fine.
The fines relate to an incident in which an employee of the company suffered burns to 30 percent of his body. The horrific injuries, which have required 13 surgeries, with more to follow, arose following glaring failures by PGQW and its manager, Bradley Shackleton, in carrying out shared safety responsibilities.
In November 2018, a new and young employee of PGQW was instructed to apply kerosene to 30 metal sheets and then sand them, in order to produce a non-reflective and corrosion-resistant finish. The employee was not given adequate induction, training or supervision to perform this task. Moreover, he was neither provided with nor wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), and was applying kerosene from an unlabelled plastic bottle which splashed off the metal sheets and onto his work shirt.
The following day, whilst wearing the same, unwashed work shirt, now contaminated with kerosene, the employee was tasked with welding shipping container handles, again without being provided nor wearing appropriate PPE. Soon after the employee began welding, his clothing caught fire. It was some time before the flames were put out, due to a delay in locating the fire extinguisher. The employee suffered burns from his face and ear down to both thighs.
Relevant factors taken into account by the Court were:
- PGQW had not established any safe systems of work for orbital sanding with kerosene;
- much safer systems of work for orbital sanding were available – other companies had stopped using kerosene and were either sanding the sheets dry or using a non-flammable alternative, and this alternative was actually present in PGQW’s workplace yet was not used;
- PGQW had not provided adequate induction, training or supervision to its employees;
- PGQW had a past history of non-compliance, having received prior Improvement Notices due to its failure to provide sufficient safety induction, training and adequate labelling of hazardous substances.
The company pleaded guilty to failing to provide and maintain a safe work environment and, by that failure, causing serious harm to an employee. The company also pleaded guilty to two breaches of the Occupational Safety and Health Regulations 1996.
PGQW was fined $600,000 in the Perth Magistrates Court, whilst Mr Shackleton was fined $50,000 for his personal neglect.
According to WorkSafe WA Commissioner Darren Kavanagh, Mr Shackleton, as manager of the workplace, “consented to actions that contributed to the hazard and neglected to do anything to make the workplace safer for employees”.
The case is a clear example of an employer failing to take steps to both assess and control the risks, in order to satisfy the statutory obligation to protect the health and safety of its employees, so far as is reasonably practicable. The continuing non-compliance following a previous similar history is a recipe for large penalties. Employers and relevant managers must take the safety of their staff seriously, ensuring that risks are adequately mitigated.
In this case the risk could have been eliminated by adopting a system of work that did not involve kerosene use, had the employer kept up to date with industry practice. Even if the risks could not have been eliminated, small, simple safety measures, such as the provision of appropriate PPE, training, supervision of junior staff, and labelling of hazardous materials, could have minimised the risks and largely avoided the significant injury outcome that occurred. Such measures could also have prevented the substantial penalties imposed and the PR consequences to the business from publicity about the conviction and fines.
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~ by Michael Timlin, Graduate at Law