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No training, no safe system, no remorse: $665k fine

The judge was highly critical of the employer’s attitude to health and safety.
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No training, no safe system, no remorse: $665k fine

No training, no safe system, no remorse: $665k fine

1 June 2021

By Gaby Grammeno

A business has been convicted and given a heavy fine after a bricklayer was seriously injured when a wall collapsed on him at a suburban construction site. The judge was highly critical of the employer’s attitude to health and safety, and formed a pessimistic view of the company’s propensity to reoffend.


Crushed under debris

The company was engaged to provide bricklaying services at the worksite. In turn, it engaged an individual to undertake the bricklaying. He had no experience in the construction industry. At the worksite he was told only how to move and hold bricks, but not given any further training or induction, nor did he sign a safe work method statement.

Work had begun on a masonry brick wall, but there were no temporary bracings for the partially built wall, and no risk assessment had been carried out.

On 16 April 2017, a gust of wind knocked over the wall, crushing the bricklayer. He sustained serious injuries including a severe traumatic brain injury, multiple facial and cranial injuries, permanent damage to his right eye and fractures in his left arm. After 15 days in intensive care, he was transferred to a brain injury unit at the hospital.

SafeWork NSW’s investigation revealed that though there had been plenty of information and practical guidance available to his employer on the safe construction of masonry walls, this had evidently been ignored.

The employer was charged with a breach of its health and safety duties, exposing a worker to a risk of death or serious injury, for which the maximum penalty is $1.5 million.

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


Blatant disregard for WHS obligations

The court heard evidence on the bricklaying company’s failure to fulfil its obligations under work health and safety laws to provide safe systems of work and manage risks by identifying foreseeable hazards and where possible eliminating or minimising those risks, including by providing adequate training and supervision.

The WHS Regulations also specify the requirement to manage risks associated with falling objects falling likely to cause injury. In this case, the risk was that workers could suffer death or serious injury as a result of being struck by, and/or crushed under debris from the collapse of a masonry brick wall under construction at the worksite.

The safety risk had been obvious and foreseeable. Appropriate preventive measures were not taken, even though such measures were available and feasible.

Following the incident, the bricklaying company had not made any changes to its work practices, nor did its director express any remorse or contrition for the bricklayer’s injuries. The judge formed the opinion that it had not accepted responsibility for those injuries.

The judge said she had ‘absolutely no confidence whatsoever’ that the business had addressed its health and safety failings, or that it could be be rehabilitated. She said the director’s ‘blatant disregard for his obligations and the Court process’ confirmed her view.

The ‘disregard for Court process’ referred to the company’s having maintained a plea of not guilty throughout many applications for adjournments, failed to comply with the relevant Practice Note and at the Case Readiness Hearing made a further application for an adjournment, not changing its plea from not guilty to guilty until the first day of the trial.

In another case relating to the same incident, the principal contractor who had engaged the bricklaying company was given a lighter sentence because it had entered its guilty plea earlier, had expressed remorse and contrition and was no longer operating.

Because of these considerations and the seriousness of the injury, emotional harm, loss and damage caused by the offending, the judge found that it was appropriate to award a higher sentence to the bricklaying company. She found that appropriate fine for the company was $700,000, to be reduced by 5% to reflect the (late) guilty plea.

Accordingly, the company was ordered to pay a fine of $665,000 plus SafeWork’s costs.

The bottom line: companies that don't make swift and appropriate WHS changes can face increased fines.


Read the judgment

SafeWork NSW v Sandhu Construction Group Pty Ltd [2021] NSWDC 193 (21 May 2021)

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