Unsafe Work Practices can Cost Lives and be Very Expensive
The Pike River mine disaster highlighted how many New Zealanders face very dangerous and potentially life threatening situations every day they go to work. While the jury is still out on what caused the explosion, it will not come as a surprise to many people should they learn that it could have been prevented. Both employers and employees have a duty to identify hazards and eliminate, minimise or isolate them. Often the hazards are obvious so why then do we find that every week in New Zealand workers are injured or killed?
More often than not the problem is human nature. Some people believe that accidents only happen to other people. Other people just take risks: For some it's all about how tough you are. There are also the “I know best” people, often middle age men, who have done a job for a long time. There are people who don’t even think about risks. There are employers intent on living the high-life who compromise the lives of their staff by spend every dollar the company earns (plus some). And finally there are companies that are so seriously under-capitalised that safety comes last.
Another earthquake that recently shook Christchurch reminded me about these people. Just after the shake I heard the scaffolders on a nearby partially built scaffold yell “Bring it on”. Of the five of them one wore a safety helmet and, while he had a safety harness, he had not attached it to the scaffold. He was a risk taker.
Work Accidents cost lives and can be very expensive
I believe the other men fell into the “don’t think about risk” category because later that afternoon they put on a spectacular display of high risk dangerous behaviour. They formed a chain so they could lift metal planks from the deck of a truck to the top level of the scaffold. After a plank was grabbed by the man above, each scaffolder extended his upper body and helmetless head out past the protection of the scaffold and grabbed a plank rising from the man below.
This was an act of trust: Trust that the man above would not drop his plank and trust that a rail-grabbing and plank-dropping aftershock would not occur at that very moment. If a plank had fallen then one or more of the scaffolders would have faced serious injury or death. If prosecuted the company would have no defence and would incur a substantial penalty and be ordered to pay reparation. The reason for this is that the risk could have been eliminated by waiting until each plank got to the top of the scaffold before the next one was lifted.
A recent decision of the District Court illustrates how expensive it can be even for companies who try to do most things right when it comes to Health and Safety. The employer was Dexion Commercial (New Zealand) Limited, which trades as Precision. The employee got his hand caught in a punch and forming press. He put his hand into an opening in the guard to get a metal strip into place on the machine. While he was doing this he accidentally touched the foot pedal and the press crushed his hand. The solution to the problem would have been to have made the hole smaller so a hand could not get through: In fact this is what the company did after the accident.
The Judge firmly said “It is important in all these cases that a message is given, because the point of the law is to protect employees, people of New Zealand, from harm and that will only take place if there is constant concern about safety. Human nature being what it is there will only be such constant concern if the consequences of not being concerned are expensive.”
The Judge concluded that this was a medium range offence because although the hazard was obvious, the degree of risk to life and health was not as big as it can be in other cases. He then pointed out that for “medium” cases a fine of between $50,000 and $100,000 should be imposed. He set the starting point for Precision at $60,000.
Why then did Precision only get fined $24,000.00? First, there were no aggravating factors which would have justified a higher fine. Secondly, the company had a good safety record and therefore had the fine of $60,000.00 reduced by a third to $40,000.00. Thirdly, the Court decided $8,000.00 should be used as reparation paid to the employee, thereby reducing the fine to $32,000.00. Finally, because of its early guilty plea the fine was reduced by 25% to $24,000.00. However, once Precision added in their own legal fees and the reparation they would have had no change out of $50,000.00.
Note: This article was published before the 22 February earthquake. The picture, taken 20 minutes after the February earthquake, is of the scaffolding mentioned in this article.