Prosecution of CEO: The buck stops at the top
The Queensland WHS Prosecutor secured a conviction of a Chief Executive Officer in April this year, when he was fined $60,000 for failing to exercise due diligence in relation to the death of a worker at a fertiliser factory.
The factory produced bags of fertiliser. The bags were moved along a conveyor where workers were required to inspect them. At the time of the incident, sections of the conveyor did not have sufficient guarding in place and had not for at least 13 months.
On 10 March 2020, a worker became partly trapped in a part of the machinery designed to flatten bags. By the time another worker found him, he was unconscious and unable to be revived. He died from his injuries.
In considering a plea of guilty from the CEO, the Court found that over a 13-month period, the CEO failed to exercise due diligence to ensure the company took reasonably practicable steps to address the risk of death or serious injury from the conveyor.
In particular, the CEO took no steps to check that safe systems and processes were in place, including failing to ensure that there:
- were visual markings to identify an exclusion zone to minimise the potential for workers to interact with the moving conveyor; and
- was a risk assessment or safe operating procedure developed regarding the work that was done near the moving conveyor.
The Court noted that “the buck stopped with [the CEO] in terms of decision-making” at the company. The Court found that the risk of harm to workers was real and foreseeable because of the lack of guarding and workers being required to work near the moving conveyor.
In imposing the fine, the Court noted that general deterrence was the primary consideration as well as the impact on the family of the deceased. The Court also took into account mitigating factors of the CEO, including that he:
- had no prior convictions;
- was personally affected by the worker’s death; and
- had given a substantial level of support to the worker’s family.
The CEO had also immediately taken steps to ensure the company addressed the risk.
The case highlights the critical importance of officers of a company taking a proactive approach in ensuring the company implements an effective work health and safety management system.
In this matter, the company has also been charged with industrial manslaughter and those proceedings, along with prosecutions against two former directors, are also ongoing.
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