Work deaths in Australia top 92 for 2018
13th Sep 2018
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 92 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. Their deaths are often a reflection on the poor occupational health and safety (OHS) standards applied by employers.
According to research from official nationwide Safe Work figures compiled by Australian Accident Helpline, the postal, farm, construction and fishing industries are once again in the front lines when it comes to fatalities.
Australian Accident Helpline managing director Liam Millner said that these incidents highlight the all too frequent and avoidable deaths and injuries resulting from OHS complacency on behalf of businesses, whose reputations are 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 Safe Work records reveal that, in the first nine months of 2018, 27 agricultural, forestry and fisheries workers and 27 workers in the transport, postal and warehousing sectors were killed while on duty. This compares to 28 deaths in the agricultural, forestry and fisheries sectors and 43 in the transport, postal and warehousing sectors during the same period of 2017.
The construction industry has recorded 18 fatalities this year, compared to 26 in the corresponding period last year, and manufacturing’s seven deaths for 2018 compares to just two for the same period of 2017. 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, and Victoria 16. New South Wales has confirmed workplace deaths for 2018 but without releasing official figures. In South Australia, SafeWork SA is investigating seven worker fatalities for 2018; four 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. There have been two work-related deaths in the ACT for 2018, 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.
Safe Work Australia described fatality rates in the agricultural sector as ‘high’, reflecting 14.6 deaths per 100,000 workers, and said ‘there has been no dramatic improvement in the last ten years’ in the sector.
Last year a (preliminary) total of 118 Australian workers were killed and Safe Work said the sheep, cattle and grain farming sub-sectors accounted for most of the serious claims, with the forestry and farm worker and transport, postal and warehousing sectors combining for the vast majority of deaths. One in every four worker fatalities involved the use of a vehicle.
‘Serious claim rates are high with 8.8 serious claims per million hours worked,’ Safe Work said. ‘However, the rates have decreased by 30% 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.’
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 and was fined $405,000 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.
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 access to the drugs.
Concreting contractor Phelpsys Constructions was fined $350,000 in the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court in March for its lack of safety oversights which led to the death of a client’s son, who was killed when operating the company’s earthmoving equipment. 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 largest fine handed out by a court in Western Australia for serious safety breaches so far 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 on the teenager. He 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 who was cleaning and operating a 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 Victoria said.
In construction, falls from heights continued to recur as a common injury and fatality feature in Victoria, a state still reeling from 27 construction 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 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 were recorded. Two were fatal and 88 people were seriously injured.
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 the number of people hit or crushed by a mobile plant in education to 36 since 2012, and to 1447 across all industries. Of these, 115 died and 981 were seriously injured.
A version of this article first appeared on the Australian Accident Helpline blog, and can be found here.
Dale Granger is writer at Australian Accident Helpline, a national compensation firm that specialises in personal injury.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).