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Servicing and maintenance lesson out of fatal crush incident

The importance of correct procedures when servicing and maintaining rural plant has been highlighted by a recent court case over the death of a North Queensland cane harvester.

A diesel mechanical repair and sugar cane harvesting business was fined $150,000 over the 2017 incident in which a worker was crushed to death trying to fix a cane haul-out vehicle.

The defendant company had a system in place for field repairs such as this one. Normally, one of its mechanics would be called in to do the job. However, on this occasion this process wasn’t followed as the director believed the easy fix could’ve been done by the driver.

To protect staff, the defendant company should have had a prohibition on workers doing field repairs single-handedly (as per the operator manual for the vehicle and the Rural Plant Code of Practice 2004), as well as instructing workers on the appropriate system for field maintenance.

Section 6.2 (Servicing and maintenance) of the Rural Plant Code of Practice 2004 (PDF, 0.63 MB) says:

Rural plant should be serviced and maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications or, without such specifications, according to other accepted practice. A record of all servicing and/or maintenance should be kept.

The servicing of rural plant while in use should only be carried out if this can be done without risk to health and safety. Adequate safeguards should be provided to ensure health and safety where servicing is carried out during use.

The incident occurred when three workers, including a company director, were harvesting cane and a vehicle developed a hydraulic line leak. The director, believing it was a hose that needed tightening, instructed the driver to fix the fitting. The man did the repair alone, but around 20 minutes later, a colleague discovered he’d been crushed between the haul-out vehicle and a stationary bulk fuel trailer.

In this instance, the company failed to comply with its primary safety duty and exposed a worker to a risk of serious injury or death. It appears the driver had attempted to fix the problem without turning off the machine and was crushed to death.

In sentencing, Magistrate Joseph Pinder accepted the company directors, one of whom had diesel mechanic qualifications, had previously told the driver not to work on a machine when it was operating, though noted this instruction hadn’t been given on the day of the incident.

Magistrate Pinder took into consideration the company’s significant co-operation in the investigation, an early guilty plea and remorse expressed by the directors. His Honour noted the company had no prior WHS convictions, but deemed this breach was toward the mid-level range of objective seriousness and that general deterrence loomed large in his penalty consideration.

The company was fined $150,000 plus court costs of just under $1,100.

Further information

More prosecutions are at Office of the Work Health and Safety Prosecutor website.