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Teacher held liable as a ‘worker’ for work health and safety breach

April 09, 2018

By Sooraj Sidhu and Lindsay Carroll, NRA Legal

In a rare prosecution of a worker under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) (the Act), the Queensland Magistrates Court has held a school science teacher liable for breaching his duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of his students.

The facts

A qualified science teacher with approximately 4 years of teaching experience was delegated the task of demonstrating a number of science experiments during science week at the school.

The teacher selected a number of experiments that involved the use of sodium hydroxide to dissolve aluminium.

In compliance with its duties, the school required the science teacher to carry out a risk assessment. The teacher completed and signed these documents confirming the use of a number of control measures in order to ensure the safety of the students.

One of the identified control measures was a protective screen between the experiment and the audience. However, no such screens were sourced by the teacher. Instead, the teacher enforced a gap between the experiment and the students.

Around 600 students were in attendance during the demonstrations, many of whom raced closer to the experiment for a better look.

After carrying out the experiments, the teacher placed a lid on the bottle containing both sodium hydroxide and aluminium.

By doing so, the teacher allowed for a significant build-up of gas which caused the bottle to burst and spray approximately 60 students with the chemicals. One student received superficial burns to her eyes, lips, neck and abdomen and was hospitalised overnight.

The outcome

The teacher was prosecuted for breaching his duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of his students by failing to implement the control measures identified as necessary by the risk assessment.

The teacher pleaded guilty to breaching their duty of care under the Act and exposing individuals to a risk of death or serious injury or illness. 

The maximum penalty for a breach of this kind is up to $150,000 against a worker personally.

However, Magistrate James Blanch ordered a 12 month good behaviour bond against the teacher, with a recognisance of $2,000 to be forfeited in the event of further breach.

In determining what was appropriate, the Magistrate recognised that a young child was caused distress and pain. However, the Court took into account a number of mitigating factors including that the teacher had no prior history of breaches of work health and safety laws, extensive co-operation during the investigation, excellent character references from the school as well as the teacher’s economic situation, demonstration of remorse and psychiatric counselling post incident.  

What this means for you

The Act imposes a work health and safety duty on all persons within a business, including employees.

The extent to which an employer may demonstrate compliance with the Act will vary from case to case.

However, it is clear from recent enforcement action by regulators that, employees are not exempt from prosecution for serious WHS breaches. Accordingly, at the very least, employer’s ought to educate their workforce on work health and safety obligations and provide regular training.

NRA Legal is well versed in the area of work health and safety and can deliver interactive workshops specific to your business.

To find out more information, please contact NRA Legal on 1800 RETAIL (738 245).

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