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WorkSafe New Zealand Ltd v Metrapanel Ltd (DC, 16/12/16)

OSH Tracker

Defendant:
Metrapanel Ltd
Metrapanel Ltd was fined $49,875 with $90,000 in emotional harm reparation and a further $3000 for economic loss after an employee was fatally crushed while unstrapping a dozen wooden panels from a steel drying frame. The panels fell on him because the frame had been placed on a part of the plant's floor that was not level due to a build-up of paint residue (Hamilton DC, 16 December 2016). 
Industry:
Manufacturing
Sub-Industry:
Other Manufacturing
Risk:
Struck by falling object
Harm:
Death
Penalty Amount:
$139875.00
Reparation Amount:
$90000.00
Appeared in Safeguard issue 162

Judgment Text

NOTES OF JUDGE A J S SNELL ON SENTENCING 
Judge A J S Snell
[1]
This case is a case between WorkSafe New Zealand and Metrapanel Ltd. Tragically, on 11 January 2016, Mr Ira Tangiroa Paki was involved in a workplace accident and regrettably he died as a consequence of that accident at his workplace. The company, Metrapanel Ltd, has pleaded guilty and is for sentence today on one charge, that being an employer, they failed to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employee, Mr Paki, while he was at work. This charge is brought pursuant to s 6 and s 50(1)(a) Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. That offence comes with a maximum penalty of $250,000. 
[2]
I wish to acknowledge first and foremost members of the Paki whanau who have come here for this sentencing today. I have received from some of them six different victim impact statements which I have read. I also wish to acknowledge the owners and directors and also some of the staff of Metrapanel Ltd who have also come today, because I recognise that this is an absolutely tragic type of case that comes before the Court and it is difficult for everybody involved. 
[3]
I want to go through the factual background, starting with Metrapanel Ltd. The defendant company is a manufacturing company that produces speciality wall, floor and ceiling panels for use in the construction industry. Mr Paki had commenced employment with the defendant as a dispatch paint bay pre-cut relief operator in August 2014. He was considered to be an experienced production employee, having had 18 years previous experience in the factory and onsite with Maxim Construction which is an installer for the defendant. Mr Paki's tasks included dispatch, pre-cutting, gantry crane operation, stacking down and onsite building installation of the panels. 
[4]
The background to these matters is that the defendant commissioned a mobile panel frame in late 2015. The frame's design was based on the existing fixed-panel drying rack. It was built to the defendant's specifications and delivered to the defendant's premises in December 2015. The purpose of that frame was to increase production by allowing 12 additional panels to be painted and dried. The frame is a fabricated steel construction. It is designed to be used on a flat, level surface. It is five metres in length by 2.58 metres in height and 1.504 in width. It is broadly an L-shape with the upright supports leaning backwards at a two degree angle to reduce the risk of the panels falling forwards and to facilitate the process of offloading the panels. The frame is designed to be moved by forklift. There are sleeves underneath the frame for the forklift tines to be inserted into. The sleeves open to the front of the frame. There are steel lugs on the top and bottom corners from which straps are attached. The straps secure the panels in place while the frame is being moved by forklift. Each of the panels that are loaded on the frame measure 7.35 metres in length, 2.45 metres in width and are three and a half centimetres thick. They weigh about 422 kilograms each. The total load of the panels on the frame is five tonnes or just over that amount. The panels are loaded onto the frame. There is a strap used to secure them so that they cannot topple forward and the forklift is used to shift the frame around. 
[5]
The director of the defendant company had trained Mr Paki and two other employees to use the frame, including the positioning of the frame. The training was based on the standard operating procedures for the fixed drying rack. At the same time, the defendant conducted a verbal hazard and risk assessment but failed to identify the specific hazards created by the use of the frame. After training, there was a 2.30 pm production meeting where the director asked for the training to be recorded in the Minutes. That was not done. The director spent approximately two weeks in the factory in December 2015 supervising the use of the frame. 
[6]
What occurred in the incident was that Mr Paki had returned to his first day back from his holidays. It was 11 January 2016. During the morning, Mr Paki, his supervisor and another employee painted and loaded 12 panels onto the frame. Following the incident, WorkSafe found that the defendant's employees had predominately used 50 millimetre spacer blocks to space the panels on the frame. This meant that the gap at the top of the panels was larger than the 40 millimetre gap at the bottom. This would have likely caused the panels to fan out at the top and reduced the lean of each successive panel. After the frame was loaded, it was taken outside by forklift for the panels to dry. At around 2.00 pm, Mr Paki used the forklift to bring the loaded frame back inside. He positioned the frame in the painting area in front of the fixed drying rack with the assistance of another employee. The section of floor on which the loaded frame was placed had significant paint build-up and was not level. Another employee working with Mr Paki placed two blocks, each approximately 35 millimetres thick, beneath the rear legs of the loaded frame before he and Mr Paki took their afternoon tea break. Around 20 minutes later, Mr Paki returned to the painting area and began to remove the straps that held the panels in place on the frame. When he returned, the front feet of the frame had subsided between 41 millimetres to 50 millimetres into the paint build-up, resulting in a forward tilt of the frame. With the rear feet raised by the two blocks, the net effect of the tilt was significantly increased. Mr Paki released the first strap before moving to the second strap. As Mr Paki began to release the second strap, the 12 panels fell toward him and he was crushed between the panels and one of the frame's bottom supports. The noise of the panels falling alerted other employees who attended the scene. A forklift was used to lift the panels and a drum placed underneath the panels so Mr Paki could be pulled out. Mr Paki was treated by ambulance personnel but he died at the scene. 
[7]
The particular hazard involved in this incident is a crushing hazard created by falling panels. This hazard is not specifically identified in the defendant's hazard register, however the hazard register does direct employees undertaking the painting process to ensure panel is stacked with adequate lean to prevent multiple panels dropping. The defendant's accident register records three previous instances of panels falling. 
[8]
WorkSafe's investigation established that there had been inadequate planning and hazard assessment in respect of the frame and process of using it. The defendant told WorkSafe that it conducted a verbal hazard and risk assessment of the frame in December 2015. This was not recorded in writing and there were no written standard operating procedures setting out the process to be followed. The defendant told WorkSafe it based its risk assessment on the existing fixed drying rack. The defendant noted that the frame had a greater backwards lean than the fixed drying rack which was designed to be an added safety feature, but failed to take into account the specific risks created by a mobile frame, in particular the defendant failed to address the risks created by the position of the straps which required employees to work in a hazardous position within the panels' fall zone, the paint build-up on the floor which meant that the floor was not flat and level as required for safe positioning of the frame, the positioning of the panels on the frame, including the fact a panel could be positioned in the innermost gap decreasing the intended lean of the panels, and the size of the gap on the bottom supports which required the spacer blocks to be no more than 40 millimetres in size to maintain the backwards lean of the panels. 
[9]
As an employer, the defendant was obliged to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees while at work pursuant to s 6 Health and Safety in Employment Act. The following practicable steps were available to the defendant and should have been taken: 
(a)
To have conducted an effective hazard analysis and ensured appropriate controls were put in place to manage the hazard of falling panels. 
(b)
To have ensured that the task of attaching and releasing the straps could be performed in a safe manner. This could have been achieved by ensuring that the straps could be attached and released while standing outside the fall zone or putting in place a secondary form of protection that prevented the panels from falling. 
(c)
To have ensured that the frame was positioned on suitable flat ground where it could be safely used as designed. 
(d)
To have ensured that a panel could not have been positioned in the innermost gap. 
(e)
To have put in place a standard operating procedure, outlining a safe process for the use of the frame, including the safe positioning of the frame and the size of the spacer blocks to be used. 
[10]
It is noted that the defendant has never previously appeared in relation to this type of matter or any other matter. 
The approach to sentencing 
[11]
The Health and Safety in Employment Act requires the Court to have regard to the Sentencing Act 2002 which I do and will refer to during this process. The leading case on the approach to sentencing is Department of Labour v Hanham & Philp Contractors Ltd1
| X |Footnote: 1
. The sentencing process involves three primary steps: 
(a)
The assessing of the amount of reparation; 
(b)
The fixing of the amount of the fine; 
(c)
Finally, making an overall assessment of the proportionality and appropriateness of the total sentence, that being the imposition of reparation and the fine. 
[12]
In terms of reparation, I need to comment that that is compensatory in nature and is designed to recompense an individual or family for loss, harm or damage resulting from the offending. The fine, on the other hand, is punitive. It is a financial penalty imposed effectively by the state and intended to serve the statutory purposes of denunciation, deterrence and accountability. 
[13]
In proceeding with the sentencing, I take into account s 7 Sentencing Act, primarily to hold the defendant company accountable for their actions, to promote in them a sense of responsibility, to provide for the interests of the victims of this offending, including reparation, to denounce the behaviour and offending, and to provide deterrence for others. In terms of the s 8 considerations, I need to make sure that my sentence is consistent with other sentences that have gone before for similar offending. I also need to have consideration for the effects on the victims and take into account any restorative justice matters. I am also required to take into account the financial capacity of the defendant company and I have made inquiry this morning about that and in terms of the financial capacity of the company, there is no difficulty meeting the obligations that the Court will determine and it is to their credit that they have acknowledged, and have taken, that position. 
[14]
I turn now to assessing the reparation figure. I am advised in Court today that reparation is to be paid to the victim Mr Paki's mother, that is Yvonne Paki, who is in Court today. I have had the benefit of the victim impact statements. These have come from Mr Paki's mother, Yvonne Paki, his brother, Huia Paki, each of his three sisters, Erina Watkins, Frances David and Pania Edwards, and Mr Paki's niece, Paris, whose victim impact statement was read in Court today by the prosecutor. Mr Paki was not married, he had no children, but what is clear from those victim impact statements was that he was a much-loved son, brother and uncle to many. The victim impact statements disclose their memories of him as having a very kind heart, a real love of family, a love for his work, fishing, hunting and a passion for motorbikes. He is described in a number of the different statements as being a gentle, quiet person. He was a hunter and a gatherer and a provider for his whanau. Each of those reports expresses a significant ongoing grief and devastation and distress at Mr Paki's sudden and untimely passing. There is no doubt at all that the emotional harm and loss to his whanau is both significant and very clear. 
[15]
The prosecution today have provided a table of recent awards of reparation in cases where fatalities have occurred. Now those cases provide a range of reparation from $75,000 up to the top end of $125,000. The cases provided within the table include R v Burr and Paul Burr Contracting Ltd2
| X |Footnote: 2
, a decision from 2015; R v New Zealand School of Outdoor Studies Ltd and Tony Te Ripo3
| X |Footnote: 3
R v New Zealand School of Outdoor Studies Limited and Tony Te Ripo [2016] NZDC 3081 
, a decision from 2016; R v Steelcon Construction Ltd and Rodney Bishop4, another one from 2016; WorkSafe New Zealand v Northburn Limited5
| X |Footnote: 5
, a 2016 decision; WorkSafe New Zealand v Cathedral Cove Dive Ltd6, again in 2016; WorkSafe New Zealand v Hamilton City Council7, 2016; and WorkSafe New Zealand v Corboys Earthmovers Ltd8, a decision in late 2016. Based on these authorities, the prosecution submits that the sum of $100,000 should be awarded in reparation. They also seek recovery for economic costs relating to costs in relation to the tangi, the cost in relation to a headstone and the cost of preparing the grave site to install the headstone. In this matter, there had been some dispute as to whether there had been $500 paid or whether there had been $5500 paid by the defendant. The economic loss sought by the prosecution is $8524.62. The prosecution has resolved the dispute as to what was paid earlier and it is now accepted that $5500 has already been paid by the defendant company at an early stage. 
[16]
The defendant, in their written submissions, referred to a number of cases as well. They outlined cases involving crushing injuries and which had resulted in fatality and referred to WorkSafe New Zealand v A J Russell Bricklayers Ltd9, WorkSafe New Zealand v Ravensdown Aerowork Ltd10, (these were both 2015 decisions); WorkSafe New Zealand v Enviro Waste Services Ltd11; WorkSafe New Zealand v Tokyo Food Company12 (both 2016 decisions); R v Kiwi Timber Protection Ltd13
| X |Footnote: 13
R v Kiwi Timber Protection Limited DC Whangarei CRI-2014-088-1912, 8 December 2014 
, which was a 2014 decision and WorkSafe New Zealand Ltd v Thompson14
| X |Footnote: 14
WorkSafe New Zealand v Thompson [2016] NZDC 8350 
, a 2016 decision. Based on those authorities, the defendant submits that $80,000 in reparation is appropriate. They submitted that there had already been a payment of $5500 at an early stage in proceedings and therefore the economic loss is not the figure that the prosecution was seeking. 
[17]
While the cases referred to by both counsel are of assistance, in my view, every case must turn on its own merits. These types of cases are fact-specific. The fixing of a monetary figure for emotional harm to victims where death has occurred is an almost impossible task. A tragically lost loved one cannot be easily assessed in monetary terms. The Court is required to make this assessment, difficult as it is, within the statutory framework provided. I need to recognise the emotional harm to the victims and make an assessment from there. 
[18]
It is my view, having weighed all of the factors in the background to this case, that a reparation figure should be awarded in this case in the sum of $90,000 in terms of emotional harm and there will be an additional $3000 in terms of economic loss and costs consequential on the funeral arrangements, over and above the money that has already been paid by the defendant company. In reaching that decision, I specifically take account of the $5500 already paid by the company and so there is to be paid in terms of reparation an additional $93,000. 
[19]
I turn now to assessing and fixing the fine. One again, Hanham & Philp Contractors Ltd provides the guidance in assessing the relevant culpability or blameworthiness of the defendant company. It does so by reference to a number of established factors. On these points, both counsel have comprehensively addressed me in their written submissions. I want to acknowledge the helpfulness and usefulness of those submissions being provided in writing. They were of significant assistance to the Court so I acknowledge counsels' efforts in addressing those issues. 
[20]
The first factor to be considered is the identification of the operative acts or omissions, what could be considered the practical steps. What is clear here is that this mobile panel frame was built to the defendant's specifications. It arrived onsite in December 2015. This incident occurred in January 2016. I find that the defendant failed to conduct an effective hazard analysis of the frame. The verbal hazard and risk assessment was based on the existing fixed drying rack without identifying the specific risks created by the mobile panel frame in the area in which it was to be used. As a result, the defendant failed to put in place appropriate control measures to ensure: 
(a)
The task of attaching and releasing the straps could be performed in a safe manner; 
(b)
That a panel could not be positioned in the innermost gap between the first triangular notch and the upright support. It is unknown if that occurred here or was a contributing factor to the incident, but it simply was not addressed and it should have been; 
(c)
Additionally, they failed to identify that the frame needed to be positioned on suitable flat, level ground where it could be safely used as designed. What was clear is that there was ground that was uneven within the area that it was going to be used, the unevenness caused by paint build-up. 
(d)
Finally, there was the need to have spacer blocks the same size as the gaps at the bottom of the supports. There was no standard operating procedure outlining the safe process to utilise the frame. 
[21]
It has been argued that there is some form of contribution by Mr Paki in this case because the accident occurred when two pieces of wood were put at the back of the frame. That was done to even up the frame as the front of the frame was raised by being placed on a build-up of paint. I do not accept that argument at all and within this decision, I make it clear that that is really an identification of a hazard that was always going to happen within this workplace because of the build-up on the floor of the paint and it is one that the defendant should have identified. I also emphasise that if there was any fault attributable to Mr Paki in the way that the frame was set down and then released, that does not lessen or exonerate or mitigate the culpability in my view of the defendant company in terms of the matters that they should have identified. 
[22]
The second matter to be considered is the nature and seriousness of the risk of harm occurring as well as the realised risk and current state of knowledge of the risks and the harm that may result. I find here that the very nature of handling these panels, the weight involved, the number of panels, the risk if they were to fall exactly as they did, means that the seriousness of the risk cannot be underestimated. Panels had fallen for a variety of reasons unrelated to this particular incident. When panels fall, there must have been knowledge within the business that there was a risk to employees. In this instance, Mr Paki died, so the risk of consequence to him was as high as it could possibly be. 
[23]
The third aspect is the degree of departure from standards prevailing in the industry, industry standards and the current state of knowledge about the means available to avoid the hazard or mitigate the risk of its occurrence. I need to recognise when I look at this that this equipment was new. It was new to Mr Paki. It was new to the company. The defendants are a business that takes health and safety very seriously. There is no suggestion in any of the material that any employee or any director or any owner of this business does not take health and safety seriously. While they failed to identify the risks and they failed to identify, effectively, the hazards, in my view their failure is partially explicable, it does not reduce culpability, but it is partially explicable by the inexperience with the equipment and the lack of understanding. I accept, on the information provided to me today however, that there is substantial information available on this type of risk generally. While the equipment may be unique to the actual defendant business, there is significant information available in relation to risk in terms of transportation and storage of very heavy panelised objects. It also needs to be acknowledged that the defendant company did complete a verbal hazard and risk assessment and that this appears to have been an ongoing procedure. Unfortunately, the real risks were not identified nor were the hazards that occurred here. 
[24]
The next factor is the obviousness of the hazard. I take a view that the obviousness of a panel falling is one that is clear. It would have been known by the defendant business, I think, that their error was in not recognising how that hazard would occur. It is clear that the mobile panel frame created new hazards which were not the usual hazards by the fixed frames that the company was used to dealing with. In particular, the location of the straps and the release point being within a foreseeable fall zone was obvious. I would have also thought that the build-up of the paint on the floor was also obvious. 
[25]
The next factor is the availability, cost and effectiveness of the means to avoid the hazard. In my view, this has never been about cost; this has not been about the company trying to scrimp on costs. I do not think that there would have been a major cost in rectifying the hazard, but it is more an issue in this case not that they scrimped or cut corners, it is simply that they did not recognise the hazard. 
[26]
Based on those culpability factors, the prosecution have cited a number of authorities in terms of the range of the fines. They say that the culpability in this case falls at the bottom end of the high culpability range. The high culpability range is between $100,000 and $175,000. The medium range is between $50,000 and $100,000. The defendant company submits that the fine should be in the medium range and that it should be at a level of around $80,000, so again we have a divergence; prosecution at $110,000, the defendant at $80,000. 
[27]
When I assess all of those culpability factors, I find myself in the position that I do not agree with the prosecution as to the assessment of culpability for the fine. I think that the culpability in this case is at the very top end of the medium culpability range and I assess a starting point of $95,000. 
[28]
I turn to personal aggravating features. Both counsel have submitted that there are none. I agree. 
[29]
I turn to the mitigating features. I accept that the defendant company is genuinely remorseful for what happened. At the commencement of their oral submissions today, they read a letter which was provided some time ago. It was a letter of remorse and apology. They attended the tangi. They have been in contact. They have offered reparation at an early stage but have been advised that the family would prefer to let the Court process work that out and they have respected that. There has been no doubt that they have been willing at all times to pay reparation and to try and do what they can to make things right. Their offer of setting up a trust was well-meaning, well-intended and I do not think that that was non-genuine in any way. Over and above that, they have co-operated with the investigation at all levels. They have not sought to minimise or hide behind or deflect blame or responsibility. They have no previous convictions at all. They have a history of taking health and safety very seriously. I have been supplied with a number of references. I have read them all. I have read the letter from the director. I have read the reports prepared. I have seen that they were a finalist in the 2014 Safeguard New Zealand Workplace Health and Safety Awards. They were willing to attend restorative justice. That did not proceed and they have respected the family's view that the family did not want to do that and that is entirely appropriate to respect that view, but the fact is that they were willing to attend and I recognise that because that is not an easy process for any party involved. 
[30]
When I consider all of the matters, and there are other factors that have been raised in the written submissions that I am not referring to, I consider that for all of those factors, they are entitled to a 30 percent discount from the starting point of $95,000. That is a reduction of $28,500. That reduces the fine to $66,500. I then turn from their personal mitigating factors and turn to their plea of guilty. It was a responsible plea of guilty. It is a plea of guilty which both counsel here today acknowledge gives them the entitlement to the full discount for the plea of guilty of 25 percent. Twenty five percent from the remainder of $66,500 is $16,625 and that leaves a final fine of $49,875. 
[31]
I turn then to the third and final step in this sentencing process and I consider the total imposition of the sentence that I am proposing, the reparation at the level of $90,000 plus $3000 for economic loss and the fine of $49,875, a total of $142,875, and I consider that that is entirely appropriate in all of the circumstances of this case. So on that basis, the defendant company will be sentenced as follows: 
(a)
There will be reparation in the amount of $90,000 with $3000 economic loss to be paid to Yvonne Paki. I am advised that Yvonne Paki will distribute that as she sees fit and the entire family is in agreement with that. 
(b)
There will be a fine, as I have said, of $49,875. 
[32]
I simply want to add at the end of this sentencing exercise that I do not think that in any way the defendant was a company that operated a business where this would ever have been thought to occur, where they were deliberately and continually flouting their obligations under the Act. They simply are not that sort of company. They are a company that is conscientious. They have been caught out. I recognise the great difficulty for the Paki family as well. These are never easy cases. That is the sentence of the Court. 


R v New Zealand School of Outdoor Studies Limited and Tony Te Ripo [2016] NZDC 3081 
R v Kiwi Timber Protection Limited DC Whangarei CRI-2014-088-1912, 8 December 2014 
WorkSafe New Zealand v Thompson [2016] NZDC 8350 

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