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$900K fine after teenager killed at work

A visual inspection of the scaffold would have revealed the risk.
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$900K fine after teenager killed at work

$900K fine after teenager killed at work

15 January 2021

By Gaby Grammeno

A court has found that overloading a scaffold and failing to tie it to a building resulted in its collapse, crushing an 18-year-old apprentice and severely injuring his co-worker. A visual inspection of the scaffold would have revealed the risk, but this was not done. The construction company had failed to monitor the scaffolding contractor’s performance of its contractual obligations, and for this it was convicted and hit with a heavy fine.

The incident

The construction company was the principal contractor on a mixed-use residential and commercial business development project involving the construction of seven major structures in a Sydney suburb. It engaged a scaffolding subcontractor to design, erect, maintain and dismantle scaffolding at the site.

The scaffold’s two components were a full perimeter façade scaffold approximately 13 levels high (perimeter scaffold), and a hoist/loading platform to carry workmen and materials which was about nine levels high and stood at approximately 28 metres tall (hoist/loading platform scaffold).

Over several months, the scaffold structure tied to a building known as L1 was gradually dismantled under the direction of both the construction company and the scaffolding subcontractor. By 1 April 2019 most, if not all, of the ties to Building L1 had been removed, yet the scaffold was still in use by workers at the site.

Two workers employed by the formwork contractor at the site had been directed to finish constructing the final 15 metres of a wall underneath the scaffold.

When it collapsed, they were both trapped by the rubble and debris and both suffered crush injuries, as the scaffold had been loaded at each level with pallets of bricks weighing approximately 1.2 tonnes to take advantage of the hoist before it was removed.

The 18-year-old apprentice was calling for help from underneath the rubble for 20 minutes before his injuries proved fatal. His co-worker suffered a broken pelvis, shoulder, leg and ribs, and severe bruising.

After an investigation by SafeWork NSW, the company was charged with breaching its health and safety duty under s 32 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and exposing a number of workers to a risk of death or serious injury.

In court

The case was heard in the District Court of New South Wales.

The court heard conflicting evidence regarding the capacity of the scaffold, which appeared to reflect a lack of attention to the load rating of each level. Evidence was also disputed as to whether the construction company’s general foreman had been warned about scaffold overloading.

The court considered the objective seriousness of the company’s crime of exposing workers to the risk of serious injury or death.

It also considered the aggravating factors – the substantial harm and loss – and the mitigating factors, including the company’s lack of previous convictions, its good prospects for rehabilitation (the steps it took after the incident to improve its safety performance), the contrition and remorse expressed and the action to support the families of the dead and injured workers, and the early plea of guilty.

The court ordered the company to enter into a Work Health and Safety Project Order requiring it to establish, co-ordinate and fund a 10-member working group known as the Scaffolding Industry Safety Standard Working Group, consisting of an independent chair, construction and scaffolding technical specialists as well as SafeWork NSW, union and industry association representatives.

The group is to meet 12 times over the following year to deliver a Scaffold Industry Safety Standard for the construction industry. The Standard will be a practical tool that construction workers, site supervisors, site managers and project managers can use to ensure that scaffolds are procured, erected and maintained during the course of construction to ensure structural integrity at all times, including during the dismantling process.

The company must also take steps to publish the Standard in the industry and to the public.
In addition, the court imposed a fine of $900,000, plus the prosecutor’s costs. The appropriate fine would have been $1.2 million, but that was reduced by 25% to reflect the guilty plea.

The bottom line: Scaffolding must not be overloaded, and it must be properly secured to the building with ties. Regular inspections should be carried out to ensure this is the case.

Read the judgment

SafeWork NSW v GN Residential Construction Pty Ltd [2020] NSWDC 764 (17 December 2020)

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