THE decision of Inspector Salmon v Provimi Australia  NSWIRComm 182 draws attention to the need for employers to take a robust approach to ensure the effectiveness of safe work systems, particularly in workplaces which are inherently dangerous.
The case came before the court due to a fatality which occurred in July 2006 in an animal food stock manufacturing plant in Forbes, NSW.
The court was told that a worker suffered fatal injuries while carrying out cleaning duties inside a mixer. The system of isolation of power to the machine had been ineffective and another worker had inadvertently activated the machine being cleaned when he pressed an unlabelled on-button he mistook as being relevant to another mixer.
The court heard of the longstanding practice in which machines were isolated by experienced employees who were well instructed in the methods to be used. However, the procedure for machine isolation was a manual operation in three undocumented steps, and the employees operating the mixers on the day of the accident were inexperienced. In fact, the fatally injured worker had had only one weeks’ experience at the time.
The court held that there was a degree of complacency in the employer’s approach to its isolation safety system in that it was following largely the same system used for that operation since the 1960s. The court found that the employer was not proactive in identifying potential risks and that the steps for isolating the electricity supply to the mixers were undocumented. The induction system was also found inadequate as the secondary isolation switch was not well known to the employees, particularly new employees, and there was no process to check that employees actually knew how to properly isolate the mixers.
In imposing a fine of $150,000 plus costs, the court remarked that the case ’emphasises the need for employers to be alert and diligent in seeking out potential risks rather than simply reacting to accidents’.
Tips for your business
Be pro-active in devising an effective safety system. Even if a system has been working for some time without incident, do not assume that this indicates its effectiveness.
Regularly review and monitor those systems and be aware of the underlying hazards and risks identified a proper risk assessment.
Where possible document instructions, conduct etc. Draft written instructions in a way that can be readily understood by employees.
Train and instruct employees in relation to the particular safety system and the underlying risks to safety. Take into account the experience, skills and knowledge of employees for the purposes of training and supervision.
Develop a means for verifying that employees understand their induction and training. Check that training programs that require the assistance of other employees, such as ‘buddy’ systems, are in fact being undertaken.
* John Stanton & Sudhir Sivarajah are with Australian Business Lawyers 02 9458 7005.