Tailor-made safety systems

Tuesday, 07 February, 2006

A recent decision of the Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales serves as a timely warning to employers on generic safe work method statements.

The Commission stressed the importance of tailoring safe work method statements to:

  • the needs of a particular business or operation,
  • the employees performing work, and
  • other relevant circumstances.

Employers and others with obligations to ensure occupational health and safety must be aware that safety systems will not be effective in practice, nor as evidence in defence of a prosecution unless they are developed with a view to the specific circumstances of the workplace in which they will operate.

Inspector Cooper v Angelucci & Ors [2005] NSWIRComm 262, involved an incident at a building site in Sydney in October 2002. A number of defendants were named in the matter, including the principal contractor, Jarrett Street Developments Pty Limited and its director, Mr Angelucci, the project manager, Mr Pearce and A & G Formworkers (Australia) Pty Limited, the employer of the workers whose safety was put at risk by the incident. All parties pleaded guilty.

The incident involved a labour hire worker, also employed by A & G Formworkers, who had been instructed to move a 1200 kilogram bag of sand from one side of the construction site to another. This involved moving the bag over the top of an area where people were working. The labour hire worker who was instructed to perform the task had obtained his crane operator's certificate only two weeks prior to the incident.

The operator was unable to maintain visual contact with the load throughout the lift, so planned to follow his usual practice of watching it as far as he could see it, then walking through the building to complete the lift from the other side. While he was doing this, the crane's load indicator alarm sounded, indicating the load was too heavy to complete the lift.

The operator started to retract the load, but had a limited view and the load collided with a precast concrete chimney. Two sections of the chimney were dislodged and fell onto the roof of the building, landing in a courtyard area below.

At the time, two other employees of A & G Formworkers were erecting scaffolding platforms in the courtyard area. One employee ran away to avoid being struck, and escaped injury. The other employee dove into a section of the scaffolding. He hit his head and sustained other minor injuries to his lower back and legs.

Justice Boland found all of the defendants collectively failed to ensure safety at the site. Jarrett Street Developments, who was the builder and had control of the premises, left the management of occupational health and safety to Mr Pearce, as did A & G Formworkers. Neither party followed up to ensure that Mr Pearce had taken the necessary steps to meet their obligations.

The company which erected and commissioned the crane, MCR, had a generic safe work method statement relating to the crane's operations. This statement required that a workplace operations plan be developed, taking into account:

  • job requirements,
  • other workers,
  • priorities,
  • workplace rules and other procedures,
  • identified hazards and hazard control measures.

Mr Angelucci requested that Mr Pearce prepare and implement a localised safe work method statement, as required. Mr Pearce had started doing so but had not completed or implemented the statement at the time of the incident.

Mr Pearce stated in evidence that he recognised in retrospect that a safe work method statement should have been implemented prior to work commencing. However, Mr Pearce stated that he had assumed that the generic statement adopted by MCR would be sufficient in the meantime. Further, as the crane operator had worked with MCR previously, Mr Pearce assumed that the operator had intimate knowledge of the crane and would not require more detailed instruction.

Mr Pearce and Mr Angelucci further argued that the crane operator had been told not to perform any lifts without a dogman, so a work method statement wouldn't have made any difference.

Justice Boland said this aspect of the defendants' argument underestimated the importance of safe work method statements.

Justice Boland further stated that "the preparation and promulgation of safe work method statements are to be taken seriously" and should never be a "cut and paste" process from a past job.

In particular, Justice Boland was careful to emphasise the fact that the value of safe work method statements lies in the investigation, consultation and consideration involved in compiling them, and assists in identifying the risks and putting in place procedures to avoid them.

Justice Boland said that if a work method statement had been provided and maintained at the site, no worker would have been in doubt about the need to use a dogman.

He said, nonetheless, that the fact the operator ignored instruction was a significant mitigating factor in the defendants' favour.

Justice Boland fined Mr Angelucci $8000 ($3500 and $4500 for each offence after applying the principle of totality). He fined Jarrett Street Developments $40,000 (out of a maximum $550,000) and A & G Formworkers $50,000 (out of a maximum $825,000). Mr Pearce was fined $8000 out of a maximum $55,000.

Companies should be continually mindful of the fact that their obligations are to 'ensure' health and safety. This is a holistic obligation and involves a comprehensive approach to issues such as developing a safe system of work.

What is required is a careful assessment of the relevant operation, the people involved in the operation, the hazards which have been identified and the associated risks. Safe work method statements are a key element in the instruction of workers and assist in ensuring that workers are aware of the factors they must take into account in order to perform work safely.

This case is another reminder to employers to be constantly vigilant with respect to health and safety in the workplace.

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