The price of ignorance

As a result of an accident in which a New South Wales demolition worker was hospitalised for seven days, prosecutions for breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act were brought against the worker?s employer and the managing director of the business that employed him. Neither defended the charges. The demolition company was fined $126,000, while its managing director was ordered to pay $12,500.

In Inspector Dubios v Masters Civil Pty Ltd, the NSW Industrial Court heard that the worker was injured on his first day of work with the demolition company. The injured worker was directed to extract nails from a roof by using a pick. He was told to then pull off the panel roof sheeting by hand. The worker had been on duty for only three hours before he lost balance and fell nearly 2.5m to the ground. He fractured his right leg, sustained various cuts and bruises, lost one tooth and another was broken. The worker lay undiscovered in his injured state for nearly 15 minutes.

The accident came to Work Cover?s attention four months later. The employer should have notified the Work Cover Authority within seven days of the accident. The managing director of the company that employed the injured worker told the court that the failure was due to his own ignorance of the law. The managing director conceded that he had little or no understanding of occupational health and safety requirements.

The lack of attention to safety was reflected in the inadequate safety procedures that characterised the demolition project. These were detailed to the court during the case. Although the work was specialised and dangerous to perform, the inexperienced worker was not given site induction or appropriate training to do the work. The worker was not told to wear a safety harness, even though there was a harness on site on the day of the accident. Scaffolding had been in place, but the employee was not told to stand on it or otherwise use it for his safety. Even when the injured worker was found, the first aid equipment could not be used because no one at the site had the necessary first aid qualifications.

The New South Wales Occupational Health and Safety Act casts very high responsibility upon employers to ensure workplace health, and safety. Compliance is often enforced through the courts. According to Work Cover, successful prosecutions in the 2004-05 financial year resulted in $11.5 million in penalties. The penalty against the managing director reflects the capacity of natural persons to be held accountable and prosecuted under workplace health and safety law. The penalty also demonstrates the willingness of the prosecuting authority to pursue individuals.
Training, information and instruction are critical components of workplace safety. Induction and training have valuable roles to play in making the workplace safe from accidents and injury. Training and induction contribute to the value of the business by protecting it against financial penalty. As part of the risk management of your business, instruct new employees in correct work practices and ensure that employees are competent and qualified to carry out the work assigned to them. When a serious injury occurs in the work place, most Australian jurisdictions require prompt notice to be given to the relevant safety authority by the employer. An employer risks penalty if this is not done. If you are unsure about your injury notice obligations, get advice – ignorance of the law will not provide a defence.

John Stanton is a partner in workplace law with Australian Business Lawyers. Email:

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