The Darwin Awards, an annual collection of bizarre global fatalities celebrating those that ‘improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it’, may make for comical reading. But there is nothing to laugh about when it comes to the 83 workers in Australia who have lost their lives so far in 2018.
Workers have been crushed, electrocuted, mutilated and incinerated this year, succumbing to agonising injuries and leaving behind a litany of grieving families reflecting on poor occupational health and safety standards applied by employers of the deceased.
According to research from official nationwide SafeWork figures compiled by common law claim experts Millner and Knight, the postal, farm, construction and fishing industries are once again in the front lines when it comes to fatalities.
Managing director Liam Millner said these incidents highlighted all-too-frequent avoidable deaths and injuries resulting from OHS complacency on behalf of businesses whose reputations were damaged as a result.
“Research has shown that companies tarnished with health and safety breaches that lead to death or serious injury of people within their area of responsibility, suffer the consequence of failing to secure future contracts,” Mr Millner said.
The latest preliminary SafeWork records reveal that 26 agricultural, forestry and fisheries workers have been killed on duty in the eight months to August followed by 24 in the transport, postal and warehousing sectors.
The construction and manufacturing sectors have both recorded 14 deaths this year, compared to 23 for both industries last year, while education and training, financial and insurance services and health and social assistance have an unblemished record for 2018.
So far, the only state and territory to confirm no work-related fatalities for 2018 are Tasmania and the Northern Territory. Queensland has recorded six deaths, Victoria 15 (compared to 16 a year ago). New South Wales has confirmed workplace deaths for 2018, but without releasing official figures. In South Australia, Safe Work SA is investigating six worker fatalities for 2018; three of which were farm-related. In Western Australia, the toll climbed to seven following the death of a Rio Tinto worker on a Pilbara mine on 16 August.
ACT said that in 2018 there have been two work-related deaths, one as a result of a motor vehicle accident involving a work truck and the other relating to an explosion in a workplace motor vehicle. SafeWork described fatality rates in the agricultural sector as “high”, reflecting 14.6 per deaths per 100,000 workers, and said “there has been no dramatic improvement in the last 10-years”.
“Serious claims rates are high with 8.8 serious claims per million hours worked. However, the rates have decreased by 30 per cent over the last decade. In line with the older demographic of the industry, older workers account for the majority of worker fatalities. However, younger workers recorded the highest serious claim frequency rates,” SafeWork said.
Last year 118 workers were killed and WorkCover experts said the sheep, cattle and grain farming sub-sectors accounted for most of the serious claims with farm, forestry and farmworkers combing for 50% of these. One in every four worker fatalities involved the use of a vehicle.
The biggest fine handed out this year for a workplace fatality was $500,000 in the Melbourne County Court in February to Specialised Concrete Pumping Victoria, for the death of a worker struck by tubing weighing two tonnes. The tubing slid off a forklift and struck the 28-year-old, who died on the scene.
In second spot is Co-Wyn Building Contractors, which pleaded guilty in the Sydney District Court for failing to protect workers following an incident which cost the life of a carpentry apprentice. The second-year apprentice fell while building a walkway platform on a Strathfield construction site. He had been unsupervised and was performing this type of work for the first time. The building contractor was fined $405,000.
Ambulance Victoria was fined $400,000 in March for failing to adequately record and store stocks of morphine and fentanyl following the death of a paramedic. The cause of death was mixed drug toxicity and Ambulance Victoria was found culpable for failing to minimise the potential for illicit access to the drugs.
Concreting contractor Phelpsys Constructions was fined $350,000 in the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court in March for safety oversights that led to the death of a client’s son, who was killed operating the company’s earthmoving equipment in June 2015. The 37-year-old man drove the skid steer to level a nature strip and was found dead in the operator’s seat with the safety bar not in position and the bucket raised.
The biggest fine handed out by a court in Western Australia for serious safety breaches this year was $327,500 to FGS Contracting, including a $102,500 penalty to a company director, for debilitating injuries suffered by a 17-year-old labourer on a farm in Esperance.
The teenager had climbed a ladder without a helmet while the company director, Ryan Franceschi, was driving a telehandler. Franceschi alighted while the telehandler was still operating, which caused a large steel truss to fall inflicting severe skull, jaw, shoulder and chest injuries to the teen – who did not have the required construction training certificate.
Fatal incidents involving farmers and their workers being crushed by tractors, or caught between trailers and farm vehicles are, once again, prominent in 2018. In Victoria alone, the number of farm-related fatalities in the year to August totalled seven out of 13 workplace deaths, an average of one per month.
In May a Shepparton fruit packaging company was fined $150,000, increased from $50,000 on appeal after a backpacker cleaning an operating conveyer belt was scalped when her hair was caught in a drive shaft.
The woman suffered “horrific injuries” and the court established that she had been expected to clean the conveyer belt while it was operating.
“The time or cost saved by not powering down is never worth the horrific injuries that could occur, and did, in fact, occur on this occasion,” Worksafe said.
In construction, falls from heights continued to recur as a common injury and fatality feature in a State still reeling from 27 worker deaths in 2017, its highest for six years.
In March SafeWork NSW launched a week-long forklift safety blitz after three workers were killed, expanding an already grim forklift injury list numbering 1,355 workers between 2014 and 2016, which had cost the NSW workers compensation system more than $30.5 million.
WorkSafe Queensland revealed that since 2012 an average of 430 workers’ compensation claims had been made for injuries in forklift-related incidents. During the same period 137 incidents involving workers or bystanders being struck or run over by forklifts had been recorded. Two were fatal and 88 others were seriously injured.
Stress is also another major killer in the Australian workplace.
One of the most tragic accidents involving children this year was in Queensland where a six-year-old student suffered leg and skull fractures and bleeding on the brain after coming out of a toilet block and being hit by a golf buggy. This brought to 36 the number of people hit or crushed by mobile plant in education since 2012 and 1447 across all industries. Of these, 115 died and 981 were seriously injured.
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