Two recent prosecutions of workers arising out of workplace pranks serve as a useful reminder that both workers, as well as those for whom they work, can be prosecuted for breaches of work health and safety legislation. The cases also emphasise the importance for PCBUs of taking steps to prevent pranks in the workplace. When things go wrong, it’s not bad luck – it’s a crime.

Inspector Estreich v Zaccardelli & Ors [2012] NSWIRComm 47

Mr Gianni Catanzaro was to be married on 24 April 2010. In order to mark this important occasion, Mr Catanzaro’s workmates subjected him to a prank on 23 April 2010. Mr Catanzaro was bound hand and foot to a piece of steel mesh with duct tape, and pelted with eggs. Mr Catanzaro’s clothing was cut off with a knife, leaving him in his underwear. Finally, petrol was splashed around Mr Catanzaro and then lit with a cigarette lighter. Mr Catanzaro stumbled into the fire and was badly burned.

Four of Mr Catanzaro’s workmates were prosecuted under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 (NSW). Mr Zaccardelli (who had been the ringleader) was also convicted in separate proceedings of an offence under section 54 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). For that offence, Mr Zaccardelli received a suspended prison sentence.

Justice Boland found all four defendants guilty, and ordered all of them to pay WorkCover’s costs of the prosecution. Two defendants were also fined, whilst the other two defendants (who were described as “a spectator” and “a fringe player”) were placed on good behaviour bonds. Importantly, the spectator and the fringe player were found to have broken the law because they had failed to intervene, either by protest or otherwise, to prevent the prank from occurring. Justice Boland held that their failure to intervene was a failure to take reasonable care for Mr Catanzaro’s safety.

WorkSafe Victoria v Trevor Domaille (Wodonga Magistrate’s Court, 12 June 2012)

Mr Domaille was holding a nail gun. Thinking that the nail gun had been disconnected from the air line, Mr Domaille pointed the nail gun at an apprentice and pulled the trigger. The nail gun had not been disconnected from the air line. The nail gun discharged. The apprentice required surgery to remove a 38mm nail which was lodged in the bone of his arm.

Mr Domaille was convicted of an offence under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic) and fined $3,000. Mr Domaiile’s (former) employer was also issued with an improvement notice in relation to its system for defining which air line was connected to which power tool. Thus, although it was the worker who was prosecuted, this case also demonstrates that a PCBU which does not take steps to prevent pranks in its workplace is also likely to attract the attention of safety regulators.

Lessons for PCBUs

  • Ensure that your safety frameworks recognise the risks of workplace pranks and include appropriate steps to eliminate pranks from your workplace.
  • Ensure that your workers are provided with training which explains, in clear and simple language, that workers owe safety obligations to one another and that workplace safety is a matter for which everyone, not just the PCBU, has responsibilities.
  • Lead by example – don’t turn a blind eye to pranks in the workplace.