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Health and Safety in the Workplace update

December 2019

A recent decision of the High Court has provided a timely reminder to employers about the importance of compliance with their responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA). 


The case concerned the prosecution of a food manufacturing company by the government health and safety regulator WorkSafe. A worker had been cleaning an auger when her thumb was drawn into the machine. It was able to be later reattached in surgery.


In the District Court, the Judge identified various steps that the company should have reasonably undertaken, including carrying out a risk assessment, ensuring that an adequate guard was installed, training and supervising workers in the safe operation of the machine, and having appropriate policies and procedures in place. The company pleaded guilty to failing to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of its workers and was ordered to pay a fine of $240,000 and reparation of some $18,000. In light of the company’s financial situation, the total amount was ordered to be paid at the rate of $4,000 per month over five years.


The company appealed its sentence to the High Court on the basis that the fine and instalment period were unreasonable or manifestly excessive. In declining the appeal, the Court reviewed material as to the financial position of the company to determine whether the fine should have been reduced on the basis of financial hardship, but ultimately did not find any error in the sentence that had been imposed.


This decision highlights the significantly increased penalties in the HSWA as well as the fact that there will need to be clear evidence to support any claim for reduction of a fine by reason of a company’s financial position. The legislation has now been in force for a little over three years and it is therefore essential that all employers familiarise themselves with their obligations in this area, if they have not done so already.