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The hardest thing an employer ever did

A first-year apprentice fell through a skylight and later died of his injuries.
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The hardest thing an employer ever did

The hardest thing an employer ever did

25 August 2020

After a first-year apprentice roof plumber fell through a skylight and later died of his injuries, his employer – who operated a roofing company – said the hardest thing he ever did in his life was to walk into the intensive care unit and meet the young man’s mother and brother, when the 20-year-old was in a critical condition. The subsequent prosecution for safety failings and the fine of $400,000 would also not have been easy.

The incident

In March 2018 an apprentice roof plumber and his young supervisor were engaged in replacing polycarbonate skylighting with metal sheets on the roof of a commercial building in Newcastle, when the apprentice roofer fell through a brittle skylight and suffered severe injuries, from which he later died. Neither the apprentice nor his supervisor had attached their harnesses to an existing static line on the ridge of the roof.

The risk of falling from a roof because of brittle material was obvious and well-known to the roofer, who had been in the business for about 16 years, and completed about 70 jobs a year, on average. The business owner admitted that the apprentice’s lack of experience had likely made him more vulnerable, though he had completed all the appropriate training in height safety and elevated work platforms.

Following the accident, the roofer increased consultation with his employees and reviewed work health and safety systems more often. He made a point of ensuring risks were properly assessed, appropriate work methods put in place, and all workers properly inducted and trained in the company's safe work method before they are allowed to work on any site.

Further, he made sure all workers are aware of the availability of appropriate fall protection measures and the need to use them in accordance with the applicable work method statement. Less experienced workers were henceforth supervised at all times by appropriately trained, experienced and competent supervisors. Workers are now required to attend regular health and safety toolbox talks on site, and all apprentices and employees receive external training in height safety and the use of elevated work platforms.

In court

The case was heard in the NSW District Court.

The employer in his affidavit expressed deep regret for the death of the apprentice. He said his mental health has suffered significantly as a consequence of the incident. Character references, including one from an older brother of the apprentice, made it clear that the roofer’s ongoing contact with the young man’s family had been greatly appreciated.

As well as material setting out the circumstances of the incident and other relevant considerations, victim impact statements from the apprentice’s parents were also taken into account.

After reviewing the evidence, the judge found that the risks had been obvious and there were available steps which could have eliminated or minimised the risk. There was an existing static line on the ridge of the roof. Both men on the roof were wearing harnesses. There were two ropes available to attach the harnesses to the static line. For unexplained reasons, one of those ropes was left in the utility at ground level. There was no cost or inconvenience in the two workers being roped onto the static line.

The judge found the company guilty of failing to comply with its health and safety duty. The death of the apprentice was a direct consequence of this failure, which had exposed the apprentice to a risk of death or serious injury.

The maximum penalty for the offence is a fine of $1,500,000, reflecting its seriousness. In view of the mitigating factors, however, including the company’s subsequent efforts to guard against the risk of an incident such as this ever happening again, its good safety record and the assistance it gave to law enforcement authorities, the company was ordered to pay a fine of $400,000 and also the prosecutor’s costs.

The bottom line: The potential consequences of falling from a height are grave, including serious injury and death. Measures to effectively manage the risk should never be neglected, particularly in relation to workers who may be vulnerable due to youth or insufficient experience.

Read the judgment

Safework NSW v Landmark Roofing Pty Ltd (No. 2) [2020] NSWDC 420

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