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Charges laid against police force over employee death

RIP, rest in peace, death, grave

Usually the ones laying charges, one state’s police force is facing criminal charges over a tragic workplace death in a commercial freezer.

Proving that no employer is exempt from workplace healthy and safety responsibilities, South Australia Police (SAPOL) and the state Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure (DPTI) have both been charged with breach of workplace duties by SafeWork SA.

According to the workplace safety body, 54-year-old Debra Summers had been employed by the police force as a part-time cook and cleaner at its Echunga Training Reserve.

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In 2016, she died from hypothermia after she became trapped in a walk-in freezer at the site.

SafeWork SA said that both government entities had failed to comply with their health and safety obligations, which resulted in Ms Summers’ death, and that their conduct constituted a criminal offence.

It cited both departments as to blame, given that SAPOL was Ms Summers’ employer and owner of the site, while the DPTI has responsibility over the maintenance of government sites.

If found guilty of breaching the relevant workplace laws, each faces a maximum financial penalty of $1.5 million.

“A number of failures led to this tragedy, and I offer my sympathies to Ms Summers’ family,” SafeWork SA executive director Martyn Campbell said in announcing the charges.

“It is critical that workplace hazards are identified, recorded and dealt with to ensure the likelihood of injury is eliminated or controlled to an acceptable level.”

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According to Mr Campbell, all employers should remember that lives can depend on them meeting their obligations on safety, and that simple things like regular maintenance of on-site equipment or machinery and even a “buddy system” so that people do not work alone can be effective in mitigating foreseeable risks.

Mr Campbell added: “Every employer has a duty to ensure their workers return home safely after work.”

A spokesperson for the police force acknowledged the laying of charges but declined to comment while the matter is before the court.

“The South Australia Police acknowledge that charges have been laid by SafeWork SA against SAPOL in relation to the death of police employee Mrs Debra Summers at the SAPOL facility at Echunga in October 2016,” the spokesperson said.

“SAPOL understands this is likely to be an extremely difficult time for the family of Mrs Summers.”

A separate incident earlier this year on the other side of the world again highlighted the potential dangers of walk-in freezers.

British butcher Chris McCabe made global headlines after becoming locked in the freezer of his shop after the button used to open the door from the inside malfunctioned.

He was able to save himself by bashing the door down with frozen goods.

In the year of Ms Summers’ death (2016), there were 182 workplace deaths across Australia, according to SafeWork Australia.

While the number demonstrated a 49 per cent fall over a decade, it still means that 182 families lost a loved one who went to work and never came home.

Primary industries – agriculture, forestry and fishing – accounted for the highest number of deaths, making it Australia’s most dangerous industry to work in.

Adam Zuchetti

Adam Zuchetti

Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016. 

The two-time Publish Awards finalist has an extensive journalistic career across business, property and finance, including a four-year stint in the UK. Email Adam at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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