The defendant was a school science teacher and held duties under s.28 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 as a worker. He held qualifications in teaching as well as a Bachelor of Science, majoring in chemistry and had approximately 4 years teaching experience.
During science week the defendant was allocated the task of choosing and demonstrating a number of experiments to encourage children's interest in science. The defendant chose a number of experiments including the use of sodium hydroxide to dissolve aluminium.
Prior to the science demonstrations the defendant signed a risk assessment confirming he would use a number of control measures, including utilising a protective screen to ensure the safety of the students. The school did not have any protective screens so the defendant attempted to implement a gap between the experiment and the students.
The experiments were conducted during the full school assembly, with approximately 600 students in attendance. The youngest students were at the front of the assembly. During the experiments the students became excited and moved towards the experiment for a closer look. The defendant had finished demonstrating aluminium dissolving in chemicals and placed a lid on the bottle containing both sodium hydroxide and aluminium. The sealed bottle caused a significant build-up of gas resulting in the bottle bursting and spraying students with sodium hydroxide.
Approximately 60 students reported they had contact with the chemical. A six year old girl received superficial burns to her eyes, lips, neck and abdomen requiring hospital treatment overnight. She recovered without scarring.
The defendant was prosecuted for failing to implement sufficient control measures. It was submitted he should not have performed the experiment without the control measures identified in the risk assessment.
On March 1, 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 his work health and safety duties and was sentenced.
Magistrate James Blanch ordered a good behaviour bond with a recognisance in the sum of $2,000 to be forfeited if convicted of an offence within this period.
The Magistrate noted the aggravating factor, that a young child was caused distress and pain. However he accepted significant mitigation including:
- Extensive cooperation with the investigation.
- No prior WHS history.
- Excellent character references from the School where it happened, including that he was still employed by the School as a science teacher. It was noted that the defendant was a well-regarded and respected teacher by both students and faculty.
- He suffered significant post incident distress himself resulting in psychiatric counselling.
- His fragile economic situation, in part due to medical expenses as a result of his young child suffering from a serious disease, noting that the defendant was the only source of income for the family.
- Significant remorse was demonstrated.
Due to the mitigating factors and impact a conviction would have on the defendant's ability to remain a teacher, the court ordered that no conviction be recorded.
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 of burns from using hazardous chemicals, 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 to ensure they remain working correctly.
When deciding and implementing control measures associated with the risk of serious injury, 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
- Roma Magistrates Court
- Magistrate James Blanch
- s.32 of the duty under s.28 Work Health and Safety Act 2011
- Decision date:
- 12 month good behavior bond with $2,000 recognisance
- Maximum Penalty:
- Conviction recorded:
- CIS event number: