School fined $140,000 after tree branch death

Melbourne private school Haileybury has been convicted and fined a total of $140,000 after a grounds worker died when he was struck by a tree branch in 2018.

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Published: 21 February 2022

Haileybury was sentenced today in the Melbourne County Court after previously pleading guilty to two charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The school was fined $90,000 for failing to provide or maintain safe systems of work and $50,000 for failing to provide information, instruction, training or supervision.

The court heard that on 14 February 2018, a grounds worker was found dead with a head wound, lying next to a large eucalyptus branch at the school's Berwick campus.

He was not wearing a helmet and two chainsaws were nearby, one still running, along with a section of large branch and a pile of smaller cut branches.

An arborist told the court that cuts to the tree indicated the worker was most likely cutting up the branch while it was still attached to or supported by the tree trunk, creating pressure that could make it move unpredictably.

A WorkSafe investigation found that the tree had previously been assessed as at risk of branch falls and the school's tree management plan recommended no live foliage be removed and no one stand beneath the tree.

The court heard that it was reasonably practicable for Haileybury to provide and maintain a system of work for deciding whether branches should be cut by an external contractor or an employee. This would include having an appropriately trained worker identify and assess the hazards associated with a task; and, where work was undertaken by employees, ensuring risks were controlled and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) was used.

The court heard Haileybury failed to inform employees of the risks associated with cutting a branch from a tree with a chainsaw.

WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety Narelle Beer said employers must do everything reasonably practicable to maintain safe work processes and ensure workers have appropriate training, information and equipment to work safely.

"Every year workers are seriously injured while trimming, pruning or removing trees – tragically, in this case a worker has lost his life," Dr Beer said.

"This death could have been avoided if a system had been in place for assessing and controlling the risks and ensuring the work was completed by someone with appropriate expertise and equipment."

To reduce risks when working with trees employers should:

  • Ensure a skilled and experienced person carries out a visual assessment of the tree, considering hazards, condition, wind loading, structural integrity and location prior to commencing works.
  • Ensure all workers have received information, instruction and training and are deemed by the employer to be able to safely undertake the work.
  • Ensure appropriate PPE is worn for the task such as helmets, boots, cut-resistant trousers, eye and ear protection, and sun protection.
  • Make sure workers are informed and trained in emergency procedures for each work site, as well as in the use of equipment working near overhead powerlines, work tasks and on-site communication.
  • Induct all workers onto each job site, explain tasks, clearly allocate roles and discuss hazards.

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