Landmark ruling after student injured

The Otago Polytechnic is to become part of a single crown entity. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The Otago Polytechnic. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The prosecution of Otago Polytechnic after a carpentry student partly severed his finger has resulted in a landmark judgement.

Rather than fine the tertiary institute, as is common in health-and-safety cases, Judge Kevin Phillips opted to impose a "court-ordered enforceable undertaking" (COEU) — the first use of the legislation.

It meant money that would have been transferred from one Crown entity to another was instead ploughed into a range of health and safety-related education programmes and awareness activities.

The measures, which would cost the polytech $275,000, included free online safety training, an awareness campaign and $18,000 of scholarships for students enrolling in construction courses.

A Dunedin District Court judgement, released this week, outlined the April 2018 incident and more than two years of legal proceedings that ensued.

The victim, a young man on a carpentry course who was granted name suppression, was using a draw saw.

He tried to pull a piece of timber from left to right with his left hand, towards the 45cm-diameter saw. His hand slipped off and hit the spinning blade, partially amputating his middle finger.

He spent two days in hospital, where the finger was successfully reattached.

Despite the injury, he returned to his course the following week, completed his training and found work in the industry.

Judge Phillips noted he had undertaken seven months of rehabilitation to achieve “almost normal function".

He said he felt no ill will towards the polytech and was happy remedial safety measures had been put in place.

WorkSafe prosecutor Trina Williams said a COEU was not punishment enough.

She told the court the draw saw had been essentially unchanged for 50 years and had been used by an estimated 6000 students, so was not an undetectable hazard.

“The risk was obvious."

She said a fine of nearly $300,000 was appropriate.

WorkSafe chief inspector Steve Kelly said

the polytechnic should have been well aware of the risks. Instead, it allowed students to operate machinery that was not up to industry standards.

However, defence counsel John Farrow said the polytech was uniquely positioned to improve health and safety compliance as an educator through the COEU.

Polytechnic chief executive Megan Gibbons said the construction industry had been consulted about free online safety training and gave positive feedback.

"This is a way for Otago Polytechnic to give back to the community," she said.

"We are committed to ensuring that no similar, or indeed different, incidents occur in any of our operations in the future."

Judge Phillips ordered reparation of $15,000 for the victim and set the length of the undertaking at two years.

The matter was officially adjourned until June 2022 with progress reports to be provided to the court every six months.

An independent auditor would do a review after a year and at the end of the undertaking.

WorkSafe had not yet decided whether it would appeal.


The undertaking

  • 1. Awareness-raising campaign (cost $12,000): includes reference to the incident, a “brand story” and social-media campaign.
  • 2. Safety training (cost $245,000):including modules on safety at work site, using machines. Training available online using interactive learning, translated into other languages, free to first 1000 people.
  • 3. Provision of scholarships: ($18,000): includes six 50% scholarships.

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