Small business owner personally liable after worker falls from ladder

13 Jun 2016

A Wellington builder ordered to pay more than $60,000 after an apprentice fell from a worn-out ladder has told of how stressful and unfair he found the prosecution.

Geordie Grieve, who was backed in court by an affidavit from Ohariu MP Peter Dunne, said he thought he had done everything right – and warned other small business owners that they might not realise the extent of their liabilities.

"I'd like everyone to know the whole story – that you are, as an employer, quite vulnerable and, if you have employees, insure. It's something I never want to see again."

Geordie Grieve wants to warn other building company owners they could be personally liable for their workers' injuries if any gaps are found in their health and safety policies.

But the apprentice's lawyer, Hazel Armstrong, says the fine reflected the work safety breach and the ongoing impact caused by her client's brain injury.

Grieve, of Grenada North, pleaded guilty last month to a charge under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, of failing to take all practicable steps to keep a worker safe.

He was fined $15,000, with his insurer covering $48,592.43 in reparations to 22-year-old Matthew Wright, who suffered a brain injury in the fall, in Newlands last year.

He had not known the three-metre ladder was onsite or that its four rubber non-slip feet were worn through when Wright went to use it, Grieve said. 

A court summary said he had told his men their task was confined to the lower level of the house, and scaffolding should be put up for height work.

He was on the other side of the house when they began removing a first-floor balcony from the ladder, which was unsecured.

When Grieve heard banging, he called out to them to stop.

A fellow worker said he saw Wright come down the ladder facing outwards, then fell as its bottom slipped.

?Wright was taken to intensive care with multiple skull fractures. He was in a coma five days then developed meningitis. He was in hospital for more than two months.

Grieve visited often, and told the family he would hold a job for Wright, who was "like part of my family".

Dunne wrote an affidavit for the "genuine, hardworking" Grieve, suggesting his exemplary safety record should be taken into account.

WorkSafe's prosecution focused on the ladder. The judge ultimately found it defective, and Grieve's responsibility.

"I thought it was pretty unfair, that I did everything – I thought – right," Grieve said. 

"But I did have a wrong: I should have checked the ladders periodically."

However, he felt staff should also be accountable. "I can't hold their hand, I can't see everything they do.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm not against health and safety, I think it's really important.

"But I think it's also important that the employer isn't the one solely responsible."

Wright's lawyer Hazel Armstrong said the fine was unusual in that the judge had used new sentencing rules allowing the reparations to take on ongoing losses as Wright was unable to return to work while he recovered from the injuries.

"This was quite a high reparation because they were also looking at future economic loss."

WorkSafe had a particular focus on falls from height to "send a message to the construction industry" about the prevalent problem, she said.

"There was a clear breach... it would have cost like $14 to repair the ladder."

Wright's mother, Lesley, said: "It is a shame that Mr Grieve seems unable to accept his responsibility in this terrible accident.

"At the end of the day, it is very simple: you go to work and you expect to come home safe and well, not on life support by 10am.

"Unfortunately for Matthew, it was him using [the ladder] at the time that it failed ... We as a family want to focus on what is important to us now, which is supporting Matt and his recovery."

ACC figures show that, of the 8615 ladder falls recorded in 2015, 1828 occurred at work.

Certified Builders Association chief executive Grant Florence said placing the onus on people in charge forced the industry to become safer.

"It's a sad time that we're learning from disastrous consequences but I guess that, for the association, that's why we spend the time and effort on educating our members about health and safety."

 - Stuff |


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