NT: hot air balloon company fined $130,000 over tourist death

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Tuesday, 27 July, 2021 - 12:15
Incidents & prosecutions
Northern Territory

A hot air balloon company based in Alice Springs has been convicted and handed a combined penalty of $130,000 after pleading guilty to a breach of section 32 of the Work Health and Safety (National Uniform Legislation) Act 2011 over the death of a NSW tourist.

On 13 July 2013, 35-year-old Stephanie Bernoth and her husband were preparing for a balloon ride with eight other passengers.

Despite receiving two safety briefings that highlighted the inflation fan as a hazard with advice to stand clear, the passengers boarded the balloon’s basket from the side where the fan was located, requiring the passengers to walk past the fan.

Bernoth was the second passenger to board the basket. As she was boarding, the scarf she was wearing was drawn into the fan, becoming entangled in the fan’s blades and driveshaft, causing fatal injuries.

NT WorkSafe charged Outback Ballooning Pty Ltd the following year, which was challenged on the grounds that NT WorkSafe did not have jurisdiction to prosecute.

This sparked a four-year legal battle and the matter was eventually appealed to the highest court in Australia.

In February 2019 the High Court ruled in favour of NT WorkSafe, reverting the charge back to the Alice Springs Local Court to finalise.

The Alice Springs Local Court imposed the following penalties:

  • Outback Ballooning was convicted of breaching section 32 of the Act and the conviction was recorded.
  • The company was fined $120,000, with an additional Victims Levy of $1000.
  • The company was also ordered to pay NT WorkSafe $10,000 to assist in the preparation, publication and distribution of written advice regarding precautions to be undertaken by tourists in Central Australia in respect to weather conditions.

“The main point is a young woman on holidays in the Northern Territory died because a business did not have appropriate systems to prevent injury from a well-known hazard in the workplace,” said Northern Territory work health and safety regulator, Bill Esteves.

“Entanglement in machinery can cause fatal injuries and businesses must ensure they are not complacent about safety and not to normalise accepting risks.”

Esteves said businesses must take a risk-based approach to continuously review their safe systems of work.

This means reviewing hazards from incidents and near misses that have the potential to inflict serious and fatal injuries, including those in other similar businesses.

“Toolbox talks and safety briefings are necessary but not enough on their own to prevent incidents,” Esteves said.

“Businesses must objectively assess risks if employees change or modify a procedure.”