Updated: Nov 1
I don't know of any other senior executive who cares more for their team. So, why was I 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 held legally responsible. It was a situation I never thought possible and something that could have been prevented.
This nightmare began with a phone call I received while attending a company conference in the United States. It was from my Operations Manager who called to inform me that a member of staff had been seriously injured in an industrial accident that had occurred at our Sydney office.
A female member of the support staff had approached a technician while he was operating the buffing machine. She had unusually long hair that reached her lower back. It was unrestrained and become entangled in the machine before being ripped from her head along with part of her scalp.
I returned to find an investigative officer from Workcare set up in our Boardroom and the walls covered with photographs taken on the day. The investigation lasted 2 weeks followed by the news we would be prosecuted.
The Steps We Had Taken
To ensure compliance to the Occupational Health & Safety Act, the Company had purchased a professional OH&S package and made line managers responsible for delivering the structured training program.
We had an active OH&S Committee drawn from across the Company that held regular meetings with documented minutes.
For the area concerned 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.
We held a training session for staff working in this area that covered the specific policy issues that applied to the buffing machine. According to her line manager, both the woman injured and the technician had attended this training.
Where We Failed
Although we conducted training, we failed to keep a signed register of attendance and therefore unable to prove who attended.
We failed to initiate a post training questionnaire or test and therefore unable to assess if remedial training was required or that staff truly understood.
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
In addition to the injured woman, neither the technician nor the first responder ever returned to work due to the trauma they experienced - 3 valuable long-term members of staff with over 40 years’ experience between them.
As well as the fine there were significant legal costs, a civil claim for damages and an increase in our insurance premiums.
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 audit 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 effective and legally compliant regime and closely monitor the results.
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