The defendant held duties under s.19 (2) of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. It operates over 30 schools, including a co-educational Catholic school with students from prep to year 12.
The week beginning 25 August 2014 was science week, and to encourage children to become interested in science the school put on interesting demonstrations/experiments. On 27 August 2014 science week demonstrations were organised to be conducted during school assembly. A science teacher was allocated to choose the experiments to be conducted in consultation with the head of the science department. They included experiments involving the use of sodium hydroxide (caustic soda).
On the morning of the demonstrations a risk assessment was signed by both the teacher and the head of science. It correctly identified the chemicals being used as hazardous and nominated some control measures. It identified sodium hydroxide as a hazardous substance extremely corrosive to skin and eyes. The risk of use without controls was deemed 'high'. The document identified controls of a protective screen, safety glasses and a laboratory coat. Both teachers signed off that with those controls in place and managed by “routine procedures in the classroom” the risk was reduced to medium.
The school did not have a protective screen. In its place, the teacher undertaking the demonstration decided an informal exclusion zone (between him and the students) was appropriate.
The demonstrations proceeded outside under a shed. The entire school cohort was present.
During the demonstration some of the younger students moved closer.
One of the bottles containing chemicals fell over. Because of this the teacher decided to secure a lid on one of the other bottles which contained sodium hydroxide and aluminium. A short time later the bottle burst causing its contents to spray out over the students at the front of the demonstration.
Approximately 60 students reported contact with the chemical. Emergency services were called while teachers washed students down with water. A 6 year old girl received burns to her face, neck and abdomen. She was taken by ambulance to hospital where she had to undergo anaesthetic in order for doctors to assess her for eye damage. She stayed overnight and had follow up treatment through her local doctor. She required eye washouts and ointments.
On 20 September 2018, the defendant pleaded guilty in the Roma Magistrates Court to breaching s.32 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, having failed to meet its work health and safety duties and was sentenced.
Magistrate Blanch fined the defendant $50,000 and ordered professional and court costs totalling $1586.40. The court ordered that no conviction be recorded.
In reaching a decision, the Magistrate took into account the experiments took place in an uncontrolled environment as opposed to a science room, and the entire school cohort was present including a number of young children ranging from 5 years upwards. The injuries sustained by the year one student were serious and caused her pain and suffering.
It was more good luck that there were not more serious injuries.
His Honour also noted the absence of a protective screen (which would have cost approximately $300) and a lack of a communicated plan with the teachers present meant that the children were more vulnerable. Accepting that the demonstration had been planned by very experienced science teachers, there should have been a better system in place.
In deciding penalty, Magistrate Blanch took into account the defendant had not been prosecuted previously for any work health and safety breach, co-operated with the investigation and entered a plea of guilty. He also took into account significant post incident measures and accepted that the defendant is predominantly a not for profit enterprise which provides substantial social services to a variety of community and charitable organisations.
Considerations for prevention
(commentary under this heading is not part of the court's decision)
When working in the Education sector where there is exposure to risks from use of hazardous chemicals, particularly where children are involved, duty holders should apply a risk management approach to ensure the selection of suitable control measures.
Risk management involves identifying the hazards, evaluating the consequences and likelihood of harm that may result from the hazard, deciding and implementing control measures to prevent or minimise the level of the risk from the hazard and monitoring the effectiveness of the control measures.
When deciding and implementing control measures associated with the risk of chemical burns, obligation holders should consider:
- Work Health and Safety Act 2011
- Managing risks of hazardous chemicals in the workplace Code of practice 2021 (PDF, 1.24 MB)
- Education and training
- Date of offence:
- Chemical burns to face, neck and abdomen
- Roma Magistrates Court
- James Blanch
- s.32 of the duty under s.19 Work Health and Safety Act 2011
- Decision date:
- Fined $50,000
- Maximum Penalty:
- Conviction recorded:
- CIS event number: