Worker Fell 16 m Down a Lift Shaft

At a steel manufacturing plant, a 30-year-old lift was used to transport not just people but also heavy loads and equipment, including forklifts. On 11 July 2011, a worker fell 16 m down the lift shaft from the second floor landing. He was able to slow down his fall by grabbing cables on the way and landed in about a metre of water at the bottom of the pit. He was lucky not to suffer extremely serious injuries but was able to recover and return to work.

As a result of an investigation by SafeWork SA, the company was prosecuted for breach of s 24A(1) of the Occupational Health, Safety and Welfare Act 1986 (SA). The charge was failure to ensure plant was maintained in a safe condition. The company initially pleaded guilty to isolated technical breaches but later admitted that it was not just a question of some technical deficiencies, it had also failed to take all reasonably practical steps to identify and eliminate hazards associated with the lift.

The problems with the lift included:

  • Missing guides at the ground floor landing doors which permitted a person to push the doors into the shaft and be crushed or struck by the moving lift
  • A worn door lock on the third floor landing which permitted a person to open the door even when the lift was not present, creating a risk of falling down the shaft
  • Broken emergency shaft access devices on the ground and second floors which could prevent manual opening of the doors in an emergency
  • Missing door guides at the ground floor
  • A worn door lock at the third floor
  • The electrical cables regularly dipped into the water in the pit, creating a risk of electrical failure
  • An excessive oil leak from the hoist machine in the lift machine room.

In the Magistrates Court of South Australia, the company maintained that, to keep the lift in a safe condition, it had relied on regular maintenance and had a service agreement with the lift company for bi-monthly inspection and servicing, as well as monthly internal inspection and maintenance. The company acknowledged that the lift was known to be unreliable and a decision to replace it had been taken already before the accident. However, the decision had not been given high priority because the lift had still been considered sufficiently safe to use.

Evidence from the most recent inspection reports from the lift company and from a consulting engineer who specialised in lifts revealed that the lift had not been adequately maintained and did not comply with the Standards Australia’s Lift Code AS 1735. For example, the defective door locks and the broken emergency shaft access devices could have been repaired or replaced, and the water at the bottom of the lift shaft had been accumulating for well over a month and nothing had been done to prevent stormwater overflow from draining into the pit.

Although all the faults found with the lift did not specifically contribute to the safety breach that brought about the worker’s fall, they indicated non-compliance with the Australian standard and demonstrated that the company’s safety systems and procedures were not as effective as it had assumed.

In mitigation, the court accepted that the company had acted promptly after the accident to replace the lift, had cooperated with the investigation and in due course pleaded guilty. The court allowed a discount of 25% in the penalty assessment. The company was convicted and fined $56,250.

Perry v OneSteel Manufacturing Pty Ltd [2014] SAIRC 8 (14 March 2014)