A large corporation responsible for the removal and treatment of almost all of Melbourne's sewerage and for the management, protection and control of Melbourne's water systems was convicted and fined $400,000 in the County Court of Victoria in February this year for failing to maintain a workplace that is safe and without risks to health in accordance with s21 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic) . An incident occurred at the corporation's plant in which a worker died in a water channel.

The site

At one of the corporation's sewerage treatment plants, concrete walkways were constructed over channels. On part of the walkway, steel slatted grates were imbedded in grooves in the walkway and used to gain access to the channel beneath. On other walkways, checkerplate steel grates were used.

Early warning signs

In August 2008 a report evidenced that both slatted and checker plate grates had become dislodged. The report identified the seriousness of this hazard stating that it could result in very serious injury and possible fatality due to drowning. Following this report, new checker plates were bolted to the concrete.

In 2010 there were further instances of grates becoming dislodged or unsecured.

Fatal incident

On 1 December 2011, a worker who was engaged to carry out biological analysis work at the plant did not return to the laboratory. Investigations revealed that a slatted grate was missing from a walkway. The worker's body was located in the channel along with a slatted grate and two other grates some distance away.

Extensive safety system 

The corporation had an extensive health and safety management system at the plant which had been subject to internal and external audit. There was an inspection and monitoring system along the walkways in the area. The Court noted that the reports of missing or displaced grates ought to have prompted those responsible for occupational health and safety to take steps to ensure slatted gates were properly secured. It was a simple and inexpensive task to secure them to the concrete.

The Court identified the following two aspects of the failure of the corporation relating to the death of the worker that were significant:

  1. despite the evidence of reports of slatted grates becoming dislodged and no subsequent steps taken to secure them, there was a clear and substantial failure, in particular in a workplace where there were considerable hazards, and occupational health and safety matters were said to be important; and
  2. the potential consequence of the failure to take adequate steps to properly secure the grates, was dire.

Sentence imposed

The court regarded the offending in at least the middle range of seriousness. The corporation had no prior convictions for this or similar offences. It took steps to ensure all grates were rendered safe and undertook an extensive safety audit. It directed a range of further training, maintenance and inspection procedures focused on safety. It published the circumstances of the incident and steps taken to other water authorities.

The corporation was convicted and ordered to pay a fine of $400,000.

Learnings

  • The fatal incident occurred despite the corporation having an extensive safety system,  internal and external audits and an inspection and monitoring system of the walkways. Safety systems should be regularly reviewed to ensure hazards are appropriately identified and reasonable steps are taken to eliminate the hazards. 
  • The safety fix (secure the slatted grates) was a simple and inexpensive task. The reports of missing or displaced grates since 2008 should have prompted those with responsibility for safety to ensure the grates were properly secured.
  • The court did not comment upon any other similar plants of the corporation. However, corporations should ensure that steps taken to ensure safety at any plant are equally applied to any similar facilities across the operations.
  • Reasonable steps should be taken by those responsible for OHS where safety hazards are reported, particularly when the potential consequence of the hazards is so dire as to potentially result in death of a worker by drowning.