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Serious injuries from sugarcane fire lead to $35,000 fine

A sugar cane harvester operating in the Burdekin district has been fined $35,000 after a cane burning incident left a worker with serious burns requiring multiple skin grafts.

The contract harvester recently pleaded guilty in the Ayr Magistrates Court to failing to meet his work health and safety duties.

The court heard that on 19 August 2017, a worker suffered a serious injury when he was burnt in a controlled burn at a sugar cane farm at Jarvisfield. At the time of the incident, the defendant was providing contract sugar cane harvesting services directly to the owners of the property.

About half of the cane on the block had been harvested (without prior burning) leaving sugar cane trash on the ground—trash can be burnt or left on the ground to decompose. The majority of growing areas no longer burn cane before harvesting, but it is still a common practice in the Burdekin.

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland told the court that fires were lit among the standing cane and the trash field when the injured worker noticed the wind had changed and was concerned he was trapped. Attempting to run out of the burning paddock, he tripped and fell, receiving burns to the exposed skin on his face, hands and legs.

Fortunately, he was then able to make his way out of the burning trash onto grass on the edge of the paddock.

The court heard that the lighting of the trash blanket when the injured worker was lighting the standing cane (and where he was located), created a risk of being trapped between the two fire fronts, which ultimately led to his injuries. The injured worker and the other two workers were not wearing any fire-retardant clothing, nor were any of the workers equipped with two-way radios or any other form of communication during the task.

The injured worker required multiple skin grafts and further laser surgery on his thumbs to regain full movement and has suffered a psychological injury as a result of the incident.

The magistrate found the possible consequences of the two fires - the standing sugar cane fire and the trash blanket fire - were clearly death or serious injury. The probability of such a consequence was obvious and not remote, when methods to prevent or minimise the incident were readily available and included using two-way radios, protective clothing, and simple procedures to coordinate the two fires.

The defendant had been a sugar cane farmer for over 45 years and had not had a similar incident in that time. He was fined $35,000 and ordered to pay court costs of almost $1,600.

Further information

More information on industrial prosecutions is at worksafe.qld.gov.au