By Cam Lucadou-Wells
Dandenong South bus manufacturer Volgren is appealing against a workplace safety conviction that it says could potentially put its future business at risk.
Volgren pleaded guilty at Dandenong Magistrates’ Court on 11 February to failing to provide adequate supervision for employees to safely perform work.
On 5 October 2018, a gantry crane was brought to a sudden halt in the factory, the court heard.
This caused the crane’s cargo – a 100-kilogram bus side-wall – to collapse in two pieces and land on a boiler-maker below, a WorkSafe lawyer told the court.
The female worker, who was welding part of the chassis, crouched down and covered her head. A falling pillar fell across her knees and entrapped her, the court heard.
Her right thigh was bruised. But she remained in the same job at the company without long-term damage.
After the incident, Volgren spent about $40,000 complying with a WorkSafe improvement notice to change the factory’s design, training and procedures.
One of Volgren’s arguments against conviction was “serious economic consequences”.
The business with 280 staff and a turnover of 380 buses a year highly depended on government tenders, it told the court.
During future tender bids, Volgren would be scored lower than rivals without convictions. Its ability to compete would be “limited, if not totally evaporate”, Volgren’s barrister Duncan Chisholm said.
This year, it would likely lose its NSW contract that represented 50 per cent of Volgren’s business, he told the court.
“The result would be dire for Volgren – 70 per cent of its staff rely on this contract.”
Mr Chisholm said the seriousness of the breach was at the “low-to-medium end”.
It occurred as a result of a “gap” in its “extensively documented” safety procedures.
There was a means to barricade and exclude the work area, and an informal understanding between the employees. But this wasn’t heeded on the day, Mr Chisholm said.
Magistrate Rodney Crisp questioned whether Volgren’s financial future was so “tenuous”.
After a second company CoxmaxNBT later offered a similar mitigating argument in court, Mr Crisp retorted: “Apparently I’m being asked not to plunge half of Dandenong into unemployment.”
“It would be a sad day in the world of occupational health and safety if the workers effectively carried the baton.”
Bringing the bus side-frames into production would be one of the “most hazardous” tasks at the factory, with a “very high” risk of significant injury, Mr Crisp said.
It was “definitely not a lower-order offence – I would find it impossible to utter those words”.
“I’ve never seen a case when it’s not obvious and easy to rectify a problem that comes before the court – (this case) is not an exception.”
Mr Crisp said the victim should have been positioned “out of the way” before the side-frame was put in position, but wasn’t.
“That’s a bad practice on any analysis. An expectation of non-conviction in this case is nil.”
He said the aim of OH&S was to “insulate workers from bottom-line decisions or non-decisions in favour of illusory productivity”.
“It’s illusory to think it’s more productive to ignore these things.”
He noted Volgren’s prior offence in 2003, though this predated Brazilian firm Marco Polo’s take-over of the company in 2012.
The company has been making buses since 1979.
Volgren was convicted and fined $30,000. It was ordered to pay $4,250 costs to WorkSafe.
Volgren chief financial officer Jaco Breytenbach told Star Journal that the conviction didn’t pose an “immediate” risk to the company.
“It’s not immediate, it doesn’t mean 70 per cent (of workers) will be without a job,” Mr Breytenbach said.
“Because it’s a tender-based business, the scoring of the business (during tender bids) could be affected in the long term.
“That’s why we thought the conviction was harsh.”
Volgren stated it would appeal to the Victorian County Court.