Tuesday 10 November 2015

Capsized barge disaster ends in fines of $600,000

A company that overloaded a barge which capsized on the Patterson River, throwing three workers into the water and seriously injuring one of them, was convicted and fined a total of $600,000 in the County Court last week.

Thiess Services Pty Ltd was fined for two breaches of the 2004 OHS Act following two incidents at Patterson Lakes in April 2012.

In the first incident, on 19 April, a 15-tonne excavator was loaded onto a barge designed to carry about five tonnes. As the barge was pushed off the river bank, it began to tilt dangerously. The operator was asked to reposition the boom of the excavator to counteract the tilt. The barge made its way along the river without further incident.

In the second incident, on 27 April, Thiess attempted to use the barge to move a 13-tonne excavator across the river. The operator of the excavator was told that the barge could carry 15 tonnes.

The operator was in the excavator cabin when the barge started to lean. He was asked to correct the balance by moving the boom but the barge capsized and the excavator sank to the bottom of the river.

The operator managed to get out of the cabin but suffered a number of injuries, including three broken ribs, a lung infection, a smashed top dental plate, an enlarged heart, and psychological injuries. Two other men on the barge were also thrown into the water but escaped injury.

During a six-day trial in August, a jury heard that the company had built the barge specifically to work along the river and it was designed to carry about five tonnes.

The jury heard that in 2010, NSW Maritime had carried out an official stability assessment of the barge and expressed concerns to Thiess about stability during the loading and transportation of a 5.3-tonne excavator.  These concerns were passed on to Thiess.

It subsequently issued a Certificate of Survey for the barge, which placed limits and conditions on the operation of the barge, including that the barge had to be “operated in accordance with loading conditions in a NSW Maritime approved stability book onboard”.

The designer of the barge advised Thiess that the barge could be lawfully operated in Victoria without a stability book but recommended that one be obtained. 

However, the barge went into operation without a stability book. It was only obtained after the two incidents in April 2012. 

The jury found the company guilty of failing to provide and maintain a working environment for employees that was safe and without risks to health; and failing to ensure that people other than its employees were not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of its undertaking.

On the first charge it was convicted and fined $250,000. On the second charge it was convicted and fined $350,000.  

WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety, Marnie Williams, said the fines imposed by the Court reflected the poor safety attitude of the company.

“The company had known for several years that experts had expressed concerns over the stability of the barge when carrying a weight of more than five tonnes,” Ms Williams said.

“Rather than minimising the risks by obtaining a stability book, and adhering strictly to the conditions it set out, the company simply chose to play Russian roulette with the lives of its employees and contractors.

“One man was seriously injured as a result, but this incident could have had a far more tragic outcome.”

Further Information

WorkSafe media enquiries: Peter Flaherty: 0478 881 663, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Caitlin Rode: 0434 685 577, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Public enquiries: Call the WorkSafe Advisory Service on 1800 136 089 between 8:30am and 5pm Monday to Friday, email info@worksafe.vic.gov.au or write to Advisory Service, PO Box 4306, Melbourne, 3001.