Courts appear more accepting of handing jail sentences to employers over fatal workplace accidents, with a second such ruling in as many months.
On 19 December, Victorian woman Maria Jackson was handed a six-month jail sentence, as well as a $10,000 fine, for breaches of workplace safety laws that resulted in the death of an employee at her second-hand business.
At the time, Sparke Helmore Lawyers suggested it was the first time in Australia that an employer would serve time behind bars for a workplace accident, given that previous custodial sentences had been suspended.
The firm’s special counsel Sam Jackson [no relation] warned it was symptomatic of “significantly increasing” penalties for employers of safety failures.
And it appears his warning was warranted, with news that a company director from Queensland has also been sentenced to time in prison.
In a post on his firm’s website dated 11 February 2019, Mr Jackson noted the ruling against Gary Lavin, director of Multi-Run Roofing Pty Ltd.
Prosecution began in 2017
The case, wrote Mr Jackson, related to the 2014 death of a 62 year-old roofer who fell from the roof of an industrial shed.
“This is the first conviction for a category 1 offence [engaging in reckless conduct that exposes an individual to the risk of injury or death] in Queensland and is the second non-suspended custodial sentence imposed on an individual for breaching their Work Health and Safety (WHS) duties in as many months,” he said.
Back in June 2017, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland announced that it would be prosecuting Mr Lavin and his company, as well as a second business and its director – Lavin Constructions and Peter Raymond Lavin, understood to be Gary Lavin’s brother – over the death.
“Whareheepa Te Amo, who only started the job four days earlier, fell almost six metres to his death while working on the edge of a roof without protection,” the department said in a public statement at the time.
“Mr Te Amo was one of five roofers working on an industrial shed at Lake Macdonald in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland on 29 July 2014 when he fell.
“The shed was part of a larger complex being re-furbished by Lavin Constructions Pty Ltd, which was the builder in control of the site, while Multi-Run Roofing Pty Ltd was engaged to fit roof sheeting.”
The agency accused the companies and their directors had “appropriate safety equipment” on-site but was not being used or used correctly. This included two scissor lifts for fall control and personal harnesses.
“Not following simple safety guidelines and taking unnecessary risks is just not on,” Workplace Health and Safety head Dr Simon Blackwood said.
“Had the available and correct controls been used, Mr Te Amo’s death would not have occurred.”
An initial appearance at Maroochydore District Court committed both directors and their companies to stand trial in the Brisbane District Court, with an initial hearing scheduled for 19 April 2017.
The case eventually found its way to the Queensland District Court, which handed down its verdict last week.
Despite the earlier statement by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland that proper safety equipment had been on-site, the ABC has reported that a key factor in the judgment against Multi-Run Roofing and Gary Lavin was a failure to erect safety rails on the roof of the work site.
This, the national broadcaster claimed, had been an attempt to maximise profits by not paying for the rails.
In handing down its verdict, the court sentenced Mr Lavin to one year in prison, with only a portion of the sentence to be suspended, while his company was fined $1 million, Mr Jackson said.
The ABC has said the case against Peter Lavin and Lavin Constructions will reappear before the court this month.
My Business has contacted Workplace Health and Safety Queensland for comment on the judgment.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.