Apprentice injured in supervisor's absence

Public news

A business and its director have been fined $150,000 and $15,000 respectively, after unsupervised apprentices were allocated a high-risk task, which injured one of them, when a qualified technician took sick leave.

The NSW case highlights the overlap that exists on many worksites between the duties of, for example, licensed and unlicensed personnel.

In October 2017, Ultra Refrigeration Pty Ltd sent two of its air-conditioning apprentices to replace a three-phase circuit breaker, contactors and overloads in the air-conditioning system of a KFC restaurant in western Sydney.

The elder of the two apprentices was 21 at the time, and sought to turn off power to the restaurant while the repair was done. However, the store manager asked them not to cut the power to the entire premises.

When fitting the circuit breaker, the tip of the older apprentice's pliers touched a live part, which caused an arc-flash explosion resulting in severe burns to his arms and temporary eye injuries. The 15-year-old apprentice suffered from shock but no physical injuries.

SafeWork NSW charged the business with breaching sections 19 and 32 of the State WHS Act, and its director Romolo Prestia with breaching section 27. They both pleaded guilty.

District Court Judge, Wendy Strathdee heard the repair had previously been assessed and quoted by a qualified air-conditioning technician who was supposed to carry out the work but was sick on the day the job was scheduled.

A supervisor then re-allocated the work to the apprentices.

Judge Strathdee found that under home building laws, qualified air-conditioning technicians are entitled to do some electrical wiring work, such as testing power circuits, disconnecting and re-connecting electrical components, and repairing faulty wiring.

However, the work to be done in this case required the supervision of a qualified electrician, she said. The sick technician was not an electrician, she noted.

By allowing the two apprentices to attempt the work on their own, the company and its director exposed them to a risk of serious injury and death, she found.

"Ultra Refrigeration admits, by its plea, failing to implement systems of work to ensure allocation of work in a safe manner and appropriate supervision of unqualified and inexperienced workers. It also admits that it failed to provide information, training and instruction regarding the appropriate allocation and supervision of work," Judge Strathdee said.

She found they expressed a high degree of remorse and accepted responsibility for the injuries. They also introduced a range of remedial steps to improve their systems to prevent similar incidents, she said.

These included employing a highly experienced air-conditioning and refrigeration technician with qualifications to allocate jobs, provide training and ensure adequate supervision is provided on all worksites.

Members are reminded of the supervision requirements for apprentices. If members need assistance please contact the WR team on wr@mtasant.com.au, or on 8291 2000.