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WA: drilling company fined $256,000 over death of worker

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.
Date: 
Wednesday, 12 January, 2022 - 10:30
Category: 
Incidents & prosecutions
Location: 
Western Australia

An exploration drilling company in Western Australia has been fined $256,000 and ordered to pay $2363.50 in costs over an incident in which a contractor died after being struck by a large stillson wrench.

The stillson – otherwise known as a pipe wrench – had been attached to a drill rig that was being operated under hydraulic power.

Orbit Drilling Pty Ltd pleaded guilty as a principal that engaged a contractor to failing to provide and maintain a safe working environment for that contractor and, by that failure, causing the death of the person, and was fined in the Perth Magistrates Court.

In May 2018 Orbit was using the Malcolm campsite as a base for some of its regional drilling operations. The campsite included a temporary workshop.

On the day of the incident, an Orbit supervisor and a contractor were in the workshop changing the function of one of the drill rigs from RAB (percussion drilling) to Air Core (non-percussion drilling), a task that was carried out every three to six months on average.

The two workers were using a large (48 inch) stillson wrench to try to release a bound thread on part of the drill, and had tried multiple times without success to break the thread.

On their sixth attempt, the Orbit supervisor inadvertently placed the rotation lever for the drill out of neutral and into forward position, causing the stillson to swing around under hydraulic pressure.

At the same time, the contractor stepped forward to reposition another wrench and was struck to the side of the head by the swinging stillson. He suffered serious head injuries and died 11 days later.

The stillson is a manual tool only and is not safe to use under hydraulic power because it can break apart or swing around and strike someone in the vicinity if the rotation lever of the drill rig is engaged.

WorkSafe WA Commissioner Darren Kavanagh said the case was another tragic example of an employer that did not ensure safe procedures were in place to protect workers.

“There was no specific written Safe Work Procedure in place to protect employees or contractors in performing this task,” Kavanagh said.

“Workers were not provided with appropriate industry tools such as Rapspan or Diaspan spanners, which are tools that are suitable to be used under hydraulic power.

“It was also possible for Orbit to have installed a hydraulic breakout unit on the drill rig prior to the incident.

“No job hazard assessment or any similar document was developed before undertaking the task of changing the function of the drill. Orbit did not have a clear policy in place requiring employees and contractors to complete an assessment for this particular task.

“In addition, neither worker was wearing appropriate personal protective equipment such as a safety helmet or ear protection.

“The hazard was a person working in the vicinity of the Stillson wrench which was attached to a part of the drill that was being rotated under hydraulic power, and the employer failed to take any effective action to assess the risk and put safe work procedures in place.”

After this incident, Orbit took several steps to reduce the risk of another injury or death of this type.

In 2010, Orbit pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a fine of $750,000 for an offence contrary to s32 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act 2004 (Victoria), relating to the death of one of its workers.