QLD: worker sentenced over Q fever case

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Wednesday, 19 April, 2023 - 12:30
Industry news
National News

A worker at the Queensland Museum was recently sentenced in the Brisbane Magistrates Court over an incident in which another employee contracted Q fever while undertaking taxidermy work at the museum.

The worker pleaded guilty on 29 March 2023 to breaching her duty as a worker under section 28 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (QLD).

The museum has a taxidermy department that assists in preparing exhibits and involves exposure to animal organs and fluids.

In January 2019, a taxidermist working in the museum’s taxidermy department contracted a chronic case of Q fever (a zoonotic disease caused by the spread of the bacteria from animals to humans) suffering a serious spinal abscess as a result.

The court heard this was the first-known infection of Q fever in the taxidermy industry in Australia, according to Lucy Bochenek, special counsel at Herbert Smith Freehills.

The worker was employed by the museum as the WHS manager between 2015 and 2019, and the Queensland Museum’s taxidermy department had a number of WHS policies in place, but none that related to Q fever.

In 2015, Bochenek said the worker had attended a seminar about biological hazards and sent an email to a supervisor asking for advice and instructions in relation to taxidermy and zoonotic diseases.

“They were advised that the probability of contracting Q fever through taxidermy was low, yet despite this, they started the process of creating a specific risk assessment for it. The risk assessment was never completed,” said Bochenek.

The prosecutor submitted that although this demonstrated that the worker had taken some “proactive steps”, they failed in their responsibility by not completing the risk assessment and implementing a safe work procedure for a risk they were aware of.

Bochenek said lawyers for the worker argued that they had an “enormous” workload as the WHS manager of the Queensland Museum’s four sites (Brisbane, Ipswich, Townsville and Toowoomba) and had very little experience with taxidermy, as it was only a small component of the museum’s operations.

The defendant’s lawyer described the worker as a “community-minded” person and described by their peers as diligent, with an “exemplary” safety record in their career, said Bochenek.

Since the incident, the worker had moved into a human resources role at the museum, transitioning away from a safety role, and intends to retire next year.

Bochenek said lawyers for the worker also noted a deep remorse for the incident and that they were the only person to go before the courts in relation to this matter.

The prosecutor sought a large fine for the worker (with a maximum penalty for the offence being $150,000), and in reaching a decision on sentence, the Magistrate noted the exceptional nature of the case, given the rare nature of how the disease was contracted.

“The Magistrate took into consideration the defendant’s early plea of guilty to the charge, the ‘real and proactive’ steps they had taken to identify the risk of zoonotic diseases, their good prospects of rehabilitation, as well as other factors,” said Bochenek.

Rather than issuing a fine, the worker was released on a 12-month $1500 good behaviour bond, without recording a conviction.

In addition, the Board of the Queensland Museum is also facing charges in relation to this matter but is proposing an enforceable undertaking (EU) with the Office of Industrial Relations (the government department with responsibility for work health and safety in Queensland).

“The EU [if accepted] means that the Board (and with it, the directors of the museum) would no longer face prosecution in respect to the incident,” said Bochenek.

“The fact that a worker, not an executive at the museum, was the only person that would go before the courts in relation to this matter was emphasised by the defendant’s lawyer in the sentencing hearing.”

Bochenek also noted that this is an unusual case and the prosecutor has not made public the reasons behind its decision to continue the prosecution against the worker after the regulator had begun the EU process with the Board of the Queensland Museum.

“It is the case that all workers have individual duties under the WHS Act, but prosecutions against workers are less commonly pursued. The case has caused some unease in the WHS profession, understandably so,” she said.

“With scant details about the details of the case, it is difficult to speak to the regulator’s reasoning in this case.”

Bochenek also noted that it is the Office of Industrial Relations’ policy that all EUs accepted by the department are to be published on its website.

“The terms of the EU will hopefully shed some guidance on why the worker was the focus of the enforcement action,” said Bochenek.