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NQ employer fined $65,000 over death of backpacker from heat stress


12 October 2020

A sole trader who used backpackers to pick produce in the Burdekin area has been fined $65,000 over the heat stress death of a worker.

The employer pleaded guilty in the Townsville Magistrates Court recently to breaching Queensland’s Work Health and Safety Act 2011, failing to comply with his health and safety obligations.

The defendant employed about 200 people each year, mainly backpackers, to work on farms in the Burdekin. The backpackers were to be trained by the defendant and the supervisors and experienced pickers he had employed.

The court heard that in late October 2017, the defendant employed a backpacker new to Australia who was not inducted in the operation’s work system, although he was shown how to pick produce. On just his fourth day on the job, the worker was picking when he collapsed and subsequently died as a result of heat related illness.

An investigation by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland revealed the defendant’s system for instructing workers, particularly new ones, was inadequate in that very limited information was provided to them on heat related illness, how to self-manage and determine their work capacity, as well as the requirements for hydration and nutrition to alleviate the effects of working in a hot thermal environment.

The investigation also revealed the defendant did not consider whether there was a need to provide or organise shelter at the client farms or to organise and plan how the picking work could be done outside the hottest part of the day. There was only one line in the induction document about workers feeling heat affected, but an entire paragraph on the ‘no music at work’ policy.

Magistrate Ross Mack found the defendant had become complacent and the information provided to workers, including the team members, was insufficient to identify heat related illness, noting the deceased had displayed obvious signs on the day of his collapse. His Honour noted it was the defendant’s responsibility to ensure the workers he employed had sufficient knowledge of heat illness and how to manage it.

Magistrate Mack accepted the defendant was remorseful and had implemented post-incident, measures that, if followed, would mean a future offence would be unlikely. He also accepted the defendant was of good character, had no previous convictions for a like offence (noting he had been operating for 23 years), had co-operated with the WHSQ investigation and had entered an early guilty plea.

The defendant was fined $65,000, plus court costs of almost $1,600. No conviction was recorded.

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