13 February 2020

Crane operator pleads guilty to the 2016 death of a construction worker

| Michael Weaver
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There have already been two deaths on construction sites in the ACT in 2020. Photo: Region Media.

The driver of a crane involved in the death of a worker at the University of Canberra Hospital site in 2016 has pleaded guilty to a high-level breach of work health and safety legislation.

Michael Watts entered the guilty plea in the ACT Supreme Court on 12 February following the August 2016 death of a worker which occurred while a mobile crane at the site was moving a large generator.

Herman Holtz, 62, died when the mobile crane Watts was driving rolled and hit him at the construction site at Bruce on 4 August 2016.

Watts pleaded guilty to a category one offence under the Work Health Safety Act 2011. Watts had originally been charged with manslaughter under the Crimes Act; however, he entered a plea of guilty for reckless conduct exposing persons to a risk of serious injury or death.

The ACT Supreme Court heard the crane had been operating at night with reduced lighting and visibility, and on unsuitable and dangerous terrain.

Mr Watts will be sentenced on 16 April. The maximum penalty for an individual for such an offence is a fine up to $300,000 and five years’ imprisonment or both.

ACT Work Safety Commissioner Greg Jones said this is the first outcome of the charges for seven people and two companies that were laid in April 2018 following a long and complex investigation. The other parties have all pleaded not guilty.

“This significant prosecution sends a very strong message to the industry that safety must be the number one priority and all efforts must be made to keep workers safe,” Mr Jones said.

“The consequences and penalties for failing to meet safety obligations and responsibilities are very substantial. All workers, employers, their managers and directors, both on-site and in the office, must ensure that safety is their number one priority.

“I urge every supervisor, manager and director on any worksite to continually review the risks at their workplaces and ensure that their safety systems and procedures mitigate the risks to protect their workers.”

Mr Jones said WorkSafe will continue its strong approach to compliance by pursuing the remaining charges relating to the University of Canberra Hospital construction fatality.

The guilty plea comes in the wake of ongoing investigations into two deaths of workers at construction sites at Denman Prospect this year.

A 60-year-old man died at a construction site in Denman Prospect on 4 February after falling from a residential building being constructed on Temple Terrace. A 47-year-old man died on 11 January when a pallet of tiles fell on him.

Master Builders ACT CEO Michael Hopkins said these incidents highlight the need for improved safety on worksites and the shared responsibility of the industry to improve safety culture and outcomes.

“This tragic incident and resulting prosecution should send a strong message to the building and construction industry that failing to meet safety obligations will result in substantial penalties,” Mr Hopkins said.

The ACT Government this week announced that additional funding of $8.7 million over four years will be provided to WorkSafe ACT to support an increase in the number of inspectors and staff at the work health and safety regulator.

The new, independent WorkSafe ACT will be led by a new WHS Commissioner who will be appointed after a selection process is completed in the coming months.

Worksafe ACT recently reported that they had issued 70 notices for safety breaches at 28 sites during a 10-day period in mid to late January 2020. This included 19 prohibition notices which closed down sites where there was an imminent safety risk to workers.

“Most of the companies in the Territory are doing the right thing, but even a small oversight or risk ignored can lead to severe injury or death on a worksite,” Mr Jones said.

Mr Hopkins said the Master Builders ACT had called for additional funding for WorkSafe inspectors in its last three budget submissions and was pleased to see the ACT Government respond.

Minister for Employment and Workplace Safety Suzanne Orr said the funding increase was part of the ACT Government’s commitment to strengthening work health and safety across the Territory.

“Safety is everyone’s responsibility and we must work together to create a strong safety culture so all workers can return home safe at the end of the day,” Ms Orr said.

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