A Redcliffe based solar panel installation company has been fined $55,000 after a hearing in the Maroochydore Magistrates Court last Friday.
It follows an incident in August 2020 when an apprentice electrician fell from an unsecured ladder and sustained head and shoulder injuries. The young man was carrying an 18.5kg solar panel when the ladder slipped out from beneath him and he fell approximately 2.4m to the driveway below. He has no recollection of the incident. Charged under sections 19 and 32 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, the court ruled the company had failed in its duty to ensure, so far as was reasonably practicable, the health and safety of its workers and the failure exposed an individual to a risk of death or serious injury.
A Workplace Health and Safety Queensland investigation revealed the defendant company had a generic SWMS for ‘Working at Heights’ which was used across various sites (and included a requirement to ‘tie-off’ ladders at the top). However, the SWMS was not signed off by employees before work started. Furthermore, the apprentice (who had been with the company for about three months) said he had not even seen the SWMS, nor did it address the specific hazard of workers climbing an unsecured ladder while carrying a solar panel or set out how workers should move panels onto roofs.
As a result of his fall, the worker sustained a subarachnoid haemorrhage and was hospitalised for seven days. He ultimately made a full recovery and returned to work after many months off. Post-incident, the defendant company purchased a mechanical panel lifter and made a number of changes to its work procedures, including drafting new SWMS for ‘Safe use of ladders’, ‘Solar installation’ and ‘Working on roofs and in ceiling spaces.’
At sentencing, Magistrate Rodney Madsen took into account an early guilty plea, as well as the defendant’s cooperation with the investigation and lack of previous convictions. His Honour had regard to the company being a family business which employed 10 people.
Magistrate Madsen noted the company’s honesty after admitting it did not do enough to assess the risk, it had not prevented the incident, and it was solely their responsibility. His Honour accepted steps had been taken post-incident to address the safety issues, including purchasing a motorised lift and using edge protection. He said even though obligations are onerous, they are important, as employees are entitled to go to work and not be injured.
In handing down his decision, Magistrate Madsen also took into account the circumstances of the incident, which resulted in a very serious injury, and the need for general deterrence. His Honour had regard to the potential consequences of the risk, which he considered were potentially catastrophic, and that the injury was severe (and could have been worse). He also noted the probability of the risk was fairly obvious, particularly working with ladders and carrying objects of significant weight and awkward size, and that there were simple, reasonable and practical steps available which were not complex, and which the defendant could not label inconvenient or burdensome.
His Honour also considered the defendant’s capacity to pay a fine, following an admission of tight profit margins. He also acknowledged the worker was well again and the defendant had supported him through his recovery.
The company was fined $55,000, and ordered to pay court and professional costs of almost $1,600. No conviction was recorded.
Work health and safety prosecution summaries in Queensland are published at www.owhsp.qld.gov.au
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