Case marks big jump in workplace accident fines

A Rangiora firm has been hit hard by the new workplace safety legislation, with a fine, reparations and costs totalling almost $180,000 imposed for a woman employee’s fall.

Rangiora Carpets Limited is one of the first companies to be sentenced under the new legislation, after a guilty plea in July to a charge of failing to ensure the health and safety of staff by exposing them to the risk of serious injury through a fall from height.

Under the new Act, the maximum fine for a company is $1.5 million, three times the level under the previous legislation, which came into force in 1992.

Worksafe New Zealand said the starting point in assessing the fine should be $560,000 while the company’s lawyer said it should be $300,000.

Defence counsel Tim Mackenzie said a small business facing such a fine would wonder about its future and might simply be liquidated. That could mean the victims of workplace accidents would not receive their payments.

A Rangiora Carpets Limited employee overbalanced while pushing a box of files in a storage area on a mezzanine floor on June 2, 2016, and fell onto a false ceiling suspended alongside the floor. The ceiling broke and she fell through it, 2.5m to the floor.

She received a broken right arm, broken right shoulder, broken right collarbone, fractures to the left side of her pelvis, and a laceration to her head.

The new Health and Safety at Work Act was passed by Parliament in 2015. The Act was passed as a result of the royal commission into the Pike River mine explosion deaths on the West Coast.

Worksafe argued that a $70,000 fine that would have applied under the old Act, should increase eight times to $560,000 under the new legislation.

The Worksafe NZ prosecutor, Emma Jeffs, said the workplace hazard could easily have been dealt with by the company in the eight or nine years that the mezzanine floor had been in use. The floor did not have a building consent.

Since the fall, the company had prevented access to the mezzanine floor by putting a lock on the door, and it had installed a balustrade.

She said the company was a profitable family business, and she detailed dividends the company had paid. There was no evidence that showed the company did not have a capacity to pay an appropriate fine.

Mr Mackenzie said Pike River had involved 29 deaths at the workplace of a large business. Having a small business faced with such large fines was not what was intended by the legislation and Worksafe’s approach had been “overly strict and literal in its application”.

He told the court the company was a first offender, which had co-operated with the investigation.

Judge Tom Gilbert said the victim had now largely recovered from her injuries though she still had some residual symptoms.

He accepted the defence submission that because of the huge increase in maximum penalties, a new approach was warranted in assessing the defendant’s culpability and relating this to the fine to be imposed.

Fines should “bite” but they should not be so great that they would force any company to close its doors. Communities depended on small businesses and 16 families in Rangiora relied on this business for their livelihood.

He accepted the starting point of $300,000 before reductions for the guilty plea, co-operation and other factors. He then set the fine at $157,500, with $50,000 to be paid within 28 days and the rest to be paid at a suggested rate of $1000 a week. He ordered a $20,000 emotional harm and reparation payment to the victim, and costs of $1228 to Worksafe NZ.


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