Fingers sliced off in log-splitter accident

A firewood company’s action in removing a guard from a log splitter was described as “inexcusable” by a judge who sentenced the firm for an accident in which an employee’s fingers were sliced off.

Christchurch District Court Judge Tom Gilbert fined Davies Tree Services $75,000 and ordered it to pay reparation of $35,000 to the injured worker as well as prosecution costs of $3400.

The manufacturer of the machine, MMD Engineering Ltd, was fined $60,000 and ordered to pay prosecution costs of $2300.

The firms were prosecuted under workplace health and safety laws. MMD admitted failing to comply with safety obligations when it manufactured the log splitter – the first time this charge has been laid.

Davies Tree Services, which bought the log splitter, admitted failing to ensure the safety of its worker by exposing him to the risk of serious injury.

Submissions in the trial became a discussion about which firm was more or less responsible for the worker’s injury.

Counsel for Davies Tree Service Ltd, Simon Graham, said MMD Engineering should have provided a machine as they stated in their invoice, with safety guards and an interlocking device that would have prevented operation if the guard was open.

He said the door (the guard) was removed because of an issue of vibration when the machine was operating. The door would open automatically and hit the operator.

“This machine, once the door was removed, should not have been able to operate,” he said.

Counsel for MMD, Joseph Lill, said removal of the guard had “fundamentally changed the operation of the machine”.

“The machine was no longer under MMD’s control at that stage. It was purely a decision by the co-defendant,” he said.

The worker, a 23-year-old family man, told the court of his shock at seeing four of the fingers on his right hand sheared off in the industrial firewood processing machine, which had a hydraulic ram.

Three of the fingers were able to be reattached by doctors, but his grip in his dominant hand remained weak, and he could not feel whether objects were sharp, or hot or cold.

He had had to give up his outdoor activities and he struggled with the prospect that his hand would grow worse and have problems. He had been off work for a year.

He told Judge Gilbert: “The prospect of having difficulties supporting and providing for my family really scares me.”
WorkSafe New Zealand prosecutor DeAnne Brabant said the department did not seek reparations from MMD Engineering. She said the department looked closely at who was culpable.

The removal of the guard by Davies, and the “work around” to clear any blockages, were the substantial cause of the accident, she said.

Judge Gilbert said removal of the guard by Davies Tree Services had been “an inexcusable action”.

He also said: “It was completely inappropriate and inexcusable to remove the guard. A nasty accident was completely foreseeable.”