Why your business may be on the brink of disaster, and what you can do to prevent it.


In my line of work I hear a lot of terrible tales where businesses have lost it all (or nearly lost it al) due to a work place accident that could easily have been avoided.

I’d like to share a cautionary tale about John, a painter and decorator, who at 61 years of age and on the eve of his retirement, was devastated by a work place injury that cost him in excess of $1.4 million, claimed the life of one of his employees and in one short moment, devastated the hopes and dreams of one family.

John had been operating a successful painting and decorating business in NSW for over 15 years. He ran a tight ship with 25 employees and over 20 additional contractors. As the company owner he believed that he had adequate OHS policies in place and that his $53k per year workers comp premium should have him well covered.

John fell into the trap that many of us do every day: just because there hadn’t been a significant accident yet, didn’t mean that one wouldn’t happen. Every job is a potential accident just waiting to happen…

It was some time in 2012 and two painters were instructed to work on the outside wall of a building. It was a day like any other, the sun was shining, everyone was in good spirits and everything was running to schedule. The job required the workers to operate on a mobile elevated platform at 11 meters up in the air.


The Accident

The two men’s supervisor – lets call him Fred – provided some very basic instructions about the scissor lift. The two men commenced work and were puzzled by the strange alarm noises that the lift was making. Because neither man knew what the alarm meant, they continued to work. And that is when disaster struck.

At some point the angle of the slope became too great, causing the lift to tip over with both men on board. One of the men was tragically killed and the other suffered minor injuries. An electrician who was working on the ground nearby was extremely lucky to not have been crushed by the accident.

Neither of the painters were licenced (as they should have been) and nor were they wearing safety harnesses or hard hats. Most importantly, Fred failed to tell them about the lift’s built in safety alarm that would alert the operator if the slope became greater than 5%. If the alarm was heard, the painters were supposed to cease work immediately and get the lift back onto safe flat ground.


The Cost

As a consequence of the accident WorkCover charged the company for:

  • Failing to ensure the health safety and welfare of its employees
  • Failing to ensure that all personnel (even those outside their direct employment) were not exposed to risk due to their undertaking

The company pleaded guilty to both offences and was fined $160,000. In addition, the company spent in excess of $300,000 in legal fees and was also ordered to pay the additional legal costs.

As a result of the accident, the company’s workers’ compensation premium was increased to $230,000 each year for the next 3 years, totalling $520,000 in extra premiums. In addition, the company spent $400,000 to upgrade its safety systems and training. At the end of the day, the accident cost the business $1,400,000.

The owner, who was looking to retire, was forced to remain running the business instead of selling it.


The Takeaway

As a result of the accident, safety standards have greatly improved and the risk of it happening again has been dramatically reduced. Now when employees are working at height each activity is risk assessed, exclusion zones are enforced, personnel are properly trained, licensed and supervised.

Toolbox talks are held regularly to discuss risk and raise awareness, and all employees and contractors are wearing the appropriate PPE such as hard hats, harnesses and high visibility clothing. As owners of a company you can’t mitigate your liability because an employee has acted carelessly or negligently. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t work this way.


What you can do to prevent it from happening to you

John had to learn this the hard way – don’t let this happen to you. Here are some simple to follow tips that will go a long way toward reducing your liability.

  • Make sure your employees are properly licenced and trained to use equipment like elevated platforms, cranes and forklifts.
  • Make sure work is properly supervised and leaders understand their obligations regarding safety and duty of care.
  • When operating at height make sure a risk assessment has been completed and the appropriate actions are taken to reduce risk. E.g. using a harness system on a roof.
  • Make sure the appropriate exclusion zones are set up when using a mobile platform. This will ensure that anything falling from above will not injure people below.

When was the last time you audited your health and safety procedures? As part of a new initiative, we can help you with a complimentary safety audit. Simply contact Michael Verheyen at Safety Xchange via mverheyen@csr.com.au or call 1300 CSR SXC (1300 277 792).

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