Injury in the Workplace

Here, we look at three more cases of employers who were fined in the millions or received jail time for workplace injury safety breaches.

Employer fined $1.3 million for forklift crush death

In February 2024, a workplace injury court case saw a Victorian company become the first prosecuted under the state’s industrial manslaughter laws introduced in 2020. The laws state that employers that negligently cause a workplace fatality can be fined more than $18 million. While individuals can face up to 20 years’ jail time.

Melbourne-based LH Holding Management Pty Ltd, operating as Universal Stone and Marble, was fined $1.3 million for the death of contractor Michael Tsahrelias. The company was also ordered to pay the victim’s family $120,000 for their pain and suffering.

Court hears details of death

During the workplace injury court case – The King v Laith Hanna & LH Holding Management Pty Ltd – the court heard how Mr Tsahrelias had been working at Universal with his father. The 25-year-old’s death took place while the company’s owner, 44-year-old Laith Hanna, had been operating a forklift carrying a loaded metal rack. Mr Hanna had directed the forklift down a slope while bearing the load two metres in the air. “Within an instant, it was past the point of no return,” Supreme Court Justice Michael Croucher said during proceedings.

Mr Tsahrelias attempted to steady the load. But as he did, the forklift fell over and crushed him. When Mr Hanna cried out for help, Mr Tsahrelias’ father arrived on scene. Attempts were then made to revive him, with the entire incident recorded on CCTV. Mr Hanna, who had a forklift licence, later told police that he was aware the load should be centred and the forklift should not have been directed onto a slope.

Victorian court considers mitigating factors

At his court hearing, father of four Mr Hanna pleaded guilty to breaching section 144(1) of the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act. This meant that he pleaded guilty to being an officer of a company that committed workplace manslaughter.

The Victorian Supreme Court found that the breach had constituted “a great falling short of the standard of care.” However, it considered several mitigating factors. First amongst these was that Mr Hanna’s negligent conduct had only occurred “over a matter of seconds.” Secondly, that he had attempted to prevent the accident by telling Mr Tsahrelias “to move before the forklift tipped.” Thirdly, Mr Hanna believed the young worker “had moved when he began to reverse the forklift.”

However, the court found that it was “still incumbent” on Mr Hanna to immediately stop driving the forklift to make sure Mr Tsahrelias would not be hurt.

“Had those steps been taken [Mr Tsahrelias] would not have been killed,”Supreme Court Justice Michael Croucher said

Remorse and guilty plea also considered

When considering its penalty, the court also considered the fact that Mr Hanna was “genuinely remorseful” about his hand in the accident. It acknowledged that he had fully cooperated with WorkSafe investigations. And that he had “provided substantial financial assistance to the family” of the victim. This included $16,900 for his funeral.

The court also factored in Mr Hanna and his company’s guilty pleas, which helped “avoid what would have been a lengthy and complex trial.” Also, the fact that he and Universal had no prior convictions. Finally, the court weighed in the “very significant negative impact” the accident had taken on Mr Hanna’s mental health.

Workplace injury and death: Employers face million-dollar fines, jail time

Each year there are hundreds of workplace injury cases across Australia. These involve workers who have been horrifically injured or died because of their employer’s safety breaches.

These have resulted in huge fines for employers and even jail time for their directors. You can even view a list of all such prosecutions on sites like NSW SafeWork and WorkSafe Victoria. These sites essentially name and shame employers who have been prosecuted for safety breaches. In Victoria alone, 2023 saw 153 health and safety prosecutions resulting in over $16 million in fines.

Woodchipper death sees company fined over $2 million

The workplace injury case SafeWork NSW v A1 Arbor Tree Services Pty Ltd and Anor [2023]  saw a NSW company handed a record-breaking fine for the death of a worker.

The incident involved 40-year-old Fijian national Samuela Cirivakayawa, who had moved to Sydney in 2019. The move came after he had earlier in the year buried his father in Sydney and had separated from his wife. Back in Fiji, Mr Cirivakayawa had been a teacher. He began working for A1 Arbor Tree Services on 25 July 2019 as a trainee groundsman. In the lead up to his death, Mr Cirivakayawa had only worked a total of seven days for the company.

The fatal incident

At 7:30 am on 7 September 2019, Mr Cirivakayawa arrived at Cromehurst School on Sydney’s north shore with a few coworkers. They were there to remove some trees that were on the school grounds. As one of his coworkers cut branches off the trees, Mr Cirivakayawa and another coworker were tasked with feeding the branches into a woodchipper.

His two coworkers left the area, however, leaving Mr Cirivakayawa to feed branches into the woodchipper on his own. When they returned to the area, the two coworkers could not see Mr Cirivakayawa. They called out for him, but receiving no reply, they assumed he had just gone to the toilet. The duo then resumed their work, and after half an hour, they cut down two trees.

At around 8:10 am, two other workers arrived at the site, asking where Mr Cirivakayawa was. It was then that one of the workers walked to the front of the woodchipper and discovered blood on the back of the truck. They immediately called emergency services, and at 8:37 am the police arrived.

According to court documents, the police noticed “small amounts of human tissue on the ground near the towing hitch.” They also observed “blood spattered on the rear of the truck and inside the container.” It then became apparent to all what had happened. “Mr Cirivakayawa had been drawn into the infeed hopper of the woodchipper, passed through the feed rollers and into the chipper disc drum and sustained fatal injuries,” court documents stated.

“Danger, do not hand feed this machine”: Employer has day in court

After SafeWork NSW conducted an investigation into the incident, A1 Arbor Tree Services pleaded guilty to breaching its duties under the NSW Work Health and Safety Act 2011. Specifically, the company failed to ensure the health and safety of its workers. Also, for exposing them to death or serious workplace injury. This guilty plea saw A1’s fine reduced from $3 million down to $2.25 million.

The NSW District Court heard how Mr Cirivakayawa was tasked with using a woodchipper not designed to be hand fed, but rather, via a mechanical log loader. In fact, on both sides of the woodchipper was a notice saying: “Danger, do not hand feed this machine …  Severe injury or death can result.”

The court found that A1 did not offer its workers appropriate instruction or training on how to safely operate the woodchipper. It said that it did not take any steps to avoid the catastrophe, which would have meant a “minor inconvenience and a little, if any, cost” for the company.

A1 was also chastised for not claiming responsibility for the accident. Instead, the company sought to “blame the victim, and attempt to exculpate the defendants.” “People should go to work safely, and come home safely, it’s as simple as that,” NSW Work Health and Safety Minister, Sophie Cotsis, said after the record-breaking fine was handed out.

Company director jailed after worker impaled

In April 2022, the Brisbane District Court delivered a significant verdict in a workplace injury case. Queensland building company Illawarra Enterprises was fined $300,000 and its director Peter Walsh was jailed for four months. This was after an employee was impaled on an uncapped metal bar.

The incident took place on 27 February 2018. Illawarra was tasked with carrying out building work on a residential site in Brisbane. The site featured a steep incline with several excavations, one of which contained a 1.9-meter-deep trench alongside a narrow earthen path.

According to the court proceedings, workers were instructed by Mr Walsh to retrieve scaffolding and trestles from a lower area using the earth ramp. A worker slipped off the ramp, narrowly avoiding falling into the trench, and reported the danger to Mr Walsh. However, no action was taken by the director.

Minutes later, another worker traveling up the ramp experienced a similar fate. Part of the path collapsed, causing him to fall into the trench and be impaled on a vertical uncapped reo starter bar. Emergency services were called, and the injured worker was transported to hospital with the bar still lodged in his body. Surgery was required to remove the bar.

Court makes example of company

The Brisbane District Court found the company and Mr Walsh breached Queensland’s Work Health and Safety Act 2011. They had failed to comply with safety duties, engaged in conduct that exposed individuals to the risk of death or serious injury, and were reckless as to the risk.

During sentencing, Judge Paul Smith emphasised the severity of the incident. “The worker who had earlier slipped had alerted the director to that incident and Walsh had taken no action,” he said. Judge Smith also highlighted the significant pain and suffering endured by the worker, saying: “Thankfully he had not sustained permanent injury.”

Mr Walsh had expressed remorse and submitted a letter of apology to the injured worker. This had yet to be delivered by the time of the court case. The court did not afford any leniency due to the case being taken to trial. However, Judge Smith acknowledged post-incident improvements to the company’s safety procedures as a positive step.

Sydney companies fined almost $3 million for teen worker’s death

The workplace injury case SafeWork NSW v Synergy Scaffolding Services Pty Ltd [2022] involved the tragic death of 18-year-old tradie Christopher Cassaniti. His employer pleaded guilty to breaching its duties under the NSW Work Health and Safety Act 2011. The maximum fine under the Act is $3 million. In this case, Synergy Scaffolding Services was fined $2 million.

Synergy had been engaged by GN Residential Construction to provide scaffolding for a construction site in Sydney’s Macquarie Park. GN Residential also pleaded guilty to breaching the Act. It was fined $900,000.

“The scaffold felt shaky”

The fatal incident took place on 1 April 2019. In the months leading up to that day, workers had been dismantling existing scaffolding, removing its ties to an adjacent building. Despite the ties being removed, workers continued to use the scaffolding, which was causing it to be severely overloaded.

There were about 20 workers at the site on the day of the accident. Some of the workers were using the scaffolding to install brickwork. According to court documents, two of the workers said “the Scaffold felt shaky.” And they noticed that there was nothing tying the scaffolding to the adjacent building.

“Calling for help from underneath the rubble”

While workers were on the shaky scaffolding, underneath Mr Cassaniti and another worker had been tasked with finishing the construction of a wall. At approximately 12:00 pm, the scaffolding collapsed.

The workers on the scaffolding had managed to jump off onto the adjacent building. And other workers further below ran to avoid falling debris. Mr Cassaniti and another worker, however, were left trapped under the rubble and debris.The “young employee was calling for help from underneath the rubble for 20 minutes before his injuries proved fatal,” court documents stated.

Mr Cassaniti had only days before celebrated his eighteenth birthday. The other worker, meanwhile, suffered a range of workplace injuries. This included a broken pelvis, shoulder, leg, ribs and severe bruising. 

“Grossly overloaded”: Court finds multiple safety breaches

The NSW District Court heard how the scaffolding had been bearing a load of 18 tonnes, which exceeded its maximum load weight. And that the disaster resulted from a “culmination of events.” This included that ties holding the scaffolding to the adjacent building had been removed without permission. As a result, workers were placed in “significant peril” by Synergy Scaffolding.

The court found that the company was aware that scaffolding ties had been removed without permission. And that the scaffolding had been put together without vertical bracing, which went against the Australian Standard. It was also found that from as early as March 2019 Synergy Scaffolding was aware the scaffolding was “grossly overloaded.” All these safety breaches had made the disaster “almost certain,” the court said.

It also stated that safety measures to prevent the workplace injuries and death would have been “simple and inexpensive.”

Conclusion to: Injury in the workplace

Call A Whole New Approach today. We have assisted over 16,000 workers across Australia take action via the Fair Work Commission. If you have experienced unfair dismissal, adverse action or any other violation of workplace rights, we can help.

Make sure you act fast, as you have only 21 days from your dismissal date to file a claim with the Fair Work Commission.

For a private consultation on how we can assist you, contact us on 1300 766 700.