18 Nov 2016

Manslaughter prosecution for concrete wall panel deaths

If you are in the construction industry, and in particular build pre-cast and tilt-up concrete wall panels, or have contracted someone to build for you, you should review your operations and rectify any safety issues immediately.

Work Health and Safety Queensland has issued a safety alert highlighting the potential risks associated with the installation of concrete wall panels and outlining steps to address these risks, following the deaths of two construction workers on the $37m Brisbane Racing Club infield redevelopment in October.  Yesterday, Queensland Police took the unusual step of arresting and charging an employer, Mr Claudio D'Alessandro, with manslaughter.

The workers were crushed between two concrete wall panels, weighing 11 tonnes, which fell over while one panel was being lifted into place by a crane. Work Health and Safety Queensland is still investigating the incident, and further prosecutions could follow, but the Government has already announced an audit of the State's work health and safety laws.

Although the Safety Alert was issued by Work Health and Safety Queensland, regulators across the country will be paying attention to the progress of this investigation, and anyone involved in a construction project at the moment should be reviewing their own operations, wherever they are.

Concrete panels: identifying the risks

The alert suggests that incidents like the one at Eagle Farm can occur because:

  • the panels are not properly restrained at their base or because they are not properly braced across their face;
  • the panels are knocked by other panels or by lifting equipment;
  • workers do not have adequate means of escape from falling panels; and / or
  • inadequate work procedures and environmental factors (eg. wind or soft ground).

Mitigating the risks of concrete panels

To minimise the risk and prevent serious incidents, you need detailed planning tailored to your project. For example, you might need to develop a work plan that allows the panels to be installed or adjusted without having the workers in a pit, or design restraints to minimise the need for workers to manually manipulate the panels.

The Alert says that control measures to prevent pit collapse are essential; it suggests that this should be managed with the assistance of a geotechnical engineer.

If you're conducting a business or undertaking in the construction industry, you should also be aware of and comply with your obligations under the:

  • Tilt-up and Pre-cast Construction Code of Practice 2003;
  • AS 3850-2015: Prefabricated Concrete Elements;
  • Work Health Safety Act 2011 (Qld); and
  • Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011 (Qld);

or the equivalents in your State or Territory.

Risk mitigation more generally

Bear in mind that under the law, organisations are required to take a risk-based approach to safety. While alerts and codes of practice set out best practice approaches to reduce risk, organisations must still consult with their workers, health and safety representatives and sometimes external consultants in order to identify and appropriately manage risk.

If you are engaging contractors to perform construction work, organisations should also ensure they have appropriate contractor management systems in place to comply with the organisation's duties to subcontractors and their workers.

Review your operations ‒ and get ready for more change

For anyone involved in construction in Queensland (which includes engaging a construction company), the effect of this prosecution and Safety Alert is clear: review your operation immediately. A proper risk assessment should include an assessment of all foreseeable hazards, including less obvious ones like access and egress, fatigue, and impairment.

Even if you are not in Queensland, regulators will be paying close attention to the Safety Alert and could issue a similar one, or step up their own enforcement activities, so would be wise to run the rule over your own operations now.

More generally, these incidents highlight how important it is for duty holders to identify risks to their workers and others and take all reasonable steps to ensure a safe workplace, particularly in dangerous industries such as construction.

They also could usher in significant changes to work health and safety laws. After the deaths at the Eagle Farm Racecourse and the Dreamworld amusement park, the Queensland Government has announced it will audit the State's work health and safety laws, and consider introducing a new offence of gross negligence causing death and increasing penalties for workplace-related deaths and injuries. Again, regulators elsewhere will be paying close attention to these developments.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.