Occupational Health & Safety - It Could be a Hidden Time Bomb!
I found myself sitting in a court room thinking – ‘How did I get here?’
I don’t know of any manager who cares for their team more than I, yet, here I was sitting in a court room accused of putting the health and safety of my staff at risk. The Company was being prosecuted for breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act and as Managing Director I was legally responsible. It was a nightmare situation I never imaged I would ever face and one I could have avoided.
It began with a phone call from my Operations Manager. I was attending a conference in the United States when he called to say there had been an accident in our Sydney office the office and a member of the team was seriously injured.
The incident occurred in the after-sales service department and involved a buffing machine used to prepare watch case backs for engraving. A female member of the support staff had approached the technician operating the machine intending to ask him a question. But contrary to Company policy and established work practice she had failed to restrain her hair with one of the caps we provide. As she lent forward to engage him in conversation, the static electricity lifted her hair and it was caught in the machine. Within seconds, a large section of hair was ripped from her head along with part of her scalp.
The words ‘devastating’ and ‘horrific’ don’t even come close and within days of the accident we were being investigated by Work Cover. I returned to find the lead investigator had set up an office in the boardroom. The blood-spattered equipment took pride of place and walls were covered with photographs taken on the day. She stayed for almost a month and interviewed every employee from the service department as well as the entire management team – one after another.
Now, I thought I understood the Occupational Health and Safety Act and believed we had it covered.
We had an active OH&S Committee drawn from across the Company that held regular meetings with documented minutes.
We had purchased a professional OH&S package and made line managers responsible for delivering the structured training program.
We had a written policy that required the restraint of long hair in the service department as well as strict rules on who could operate this equipment and the distance limits that applied when it was in use.
According to her manager, the woman injured had attended training concerning this machine and received a copy of the policy; something she denied. But, without a formal method of recording who had been trained and when this was hear-say and we were unable to produce acceptable evidence to refute her claim.
Genuine remorse and specific undertakings made to the Court saved us from a hefty 6 figure penalty. However, it didn’t save us from a guilty verdict.
We were issued with a fine of $20,000 (the smallest amount possible under the Act at the time) and a warning. But, the real cost to the business was significantly greater.
The disruption and effect on morale added 2 weeks to the turnaround time for repairs. This was compounded by the loss of 3 valuable long-term members of the after-sales service team with over 40 years’ experience between them. In addition to the injured woman, neither the technician nor the first responder ever returned to work due to the trauma they experienced.
As well as the fine there were significant legal costs, a civil claim for damages and a massive increase in our insurance premiums. Then on top of this were the design and construction cost to make good on the promises made to the Court. The final cost to the Company was estimated to be close to $1 Million.
It’s only after a serious accident that many companies learn of their legal obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the consequences. My advice is don’t be complacent. Perform an industry based OH & S assessment to identify potential problems before they arise and if you’re a Director of a Company, know your legal responsibilities and ensure you have an audited compliance regime and closely monitor the results.