By Michael Selinger
The dangers of not following a safe work procedure was demonstrated again in the recent decision of SafeWork NSW v Spectra Plumbing Pty Limited (2019).
In that decision, Spectra Plumbing Pty Limited (‘the plumbing company’) was prosecuted and fined $150,000 in relation to an incident where a plumber received a severe electric shock when a copper pipe he was transporting struck nearby high-voltage power lines.
The plumbing company was aware that scaffolding had been removed by the builder prior to the copper pipes being installed at the site. The removal of the scaffold meant that there was no alternative way to safely move the pipes into the building.
The builder did not provide any onsite cranes for the transportation of the copper pipes to the upper levels of the building, which created difficulties for the plumbing company.
On the day of the incident, three plumbers made the decision to pass the copper pipes up to the balconies of the building by hand.
In the process of moving them in this manner, one of the pipes came into contact with the energised high-voltage power lines, causing an electrical explosion and resulting in one plumber sustaining an electrical shock, arc/injuries to his eyes and severe burns to his left hand and fingers.
The plumbing company pleaded guilty and was fined $200,000 less 25% for an early guilty plea, resulting in a fine of $150,000.
The court found that the risk presented by manually lifting six-metre lengths of copper pipe in close proximity to high-voltage power lines was reasonably foreseeable. The court found that no risk assessment was undertaken in order to develop a safe work method for the task involved in lifting the copper pipe into the building.
The court took into account the fact that the removal of the scaffolding made it more difficult for the plumbers to move the copper pipe into the building. The builder also had not provided an alternative safe method of lifting the pipes into the building despite these issues being raised by the plumber.
Lessons for employers
This case is a good lesson for employers to ensure that if circumstances change in the workplace, that time is taken to reassess and determine the safest method of proceeding with the work.
In this case, the removal of the scaffold was a known factor and despite the builder not providing alternative means to transport the copper pipes into the building, the plumber allowed for an unsafe method of work to proceed.
In a situation like this, the plumber could have looked at alternative methods or involved the input of the regulator to ensure the builder provided an alternative safe method, for example, providing cranes.