Examples of applying engineering logic to workplace safety cases

Whilst the majority of workplace industry court cases do not involve duelling engineering experts, bringing an engineering perspective to more routine workplace injury cases can deliver a very significant and often unexpected edge to a plaintiff’s case. Below are a few examples where the engineering perspective has strengthened a claimant’s case substantially.

Visitor slips in an emergency services workplace.

(Engaged by for the plaintiff, out of court settlement)

A sloped concrete entrance ramp had been cleaned. Warning barriers remained in place to advise that the area had just been cleaned but the entrance was not closed off. The plaintiff slipped and fell badly when walking down the decline. His solicitor was concerned at the potential degree of contributory negligence the court may allocate to their client given the prominent signage. Tony was engaged to strengthening the case that the defendant was remiss in this situation and the dominant negligent party.

He requested a sample of the cleaning product used so that the co-efficient of friction could be determined. The coefficient is a number between 0 and 1 that allows engineers to calculate the force necessary to cause forward movement. Whilst such calculations may be too complex for courtroom use, the coefficient can also be used to compare the slipperiness of one product to another. Tony’s testing showed the product used was actually slipperier than some oils, whereas there were many cleaning options that did not.

The resultant settlement was regarded as very satisfactory by the solicitor.

Worker’s arm caught in a production line forming machine.

(Engaged by the plaintiff, court testimony)

A worker removed two protection devices to keep the production line running at a medium-sized manufacturing business. In an interview with Tony and the solicitor, the injured person mentioned that the company was going through tough financial times. When asked how he knew of this situation, the plaintiff said, “the Company made sure the workforce was aware of the situation”.

Tony identified relatively simple mechanisms that could have been introduced to prevent such overrides. He also stressed to his solicitor client that Safe Work Australia’s “How to determine what is Reasonably Practicable to Meet a Health and Safety Duty Guide” clarifies that ‘capacity to pay’ is not relevant when assessing the measures being taken to reduce risk as low as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) or so far as is reasonably practicable (SFAIRP).

In court, and just before being called, Tony was briefed by the solicitor to ‘Go for the jugular’ if the chance arrived. In his questioning, the defending barrister clearly demonstrated that he had not actually visited the work site, and Tony ‘clarified’ multiple inaccuracies in his questions before giving his answers.

The feedback from the engaging solicitor was that this significantly damaged the defendant’s credibility, and the wife of the plaintiff made a point of thanking Tony personally after a successful court judgement.

Manual handling case involving party plan sales

(Engaged by the plaintiff, out of court settlement)

A saleswoman for a very large cosmetics supplier had arrived at the location of a home sales party for cosmetics, a daily occurrence for her. The company provided her with a car and an impressive bag full of the company’s products. She leaned into the boot of the car to pick up the bag which resulted in a prolapsed disc.

If the bag was lifted from the rear of the boot, the nearest point to the person making the lift, the bag weighing approximately 12kg could be lifted safely. For example, this lift would exert a moment of 3kg.m on the spine if the bag was only 25cm away from her body, but the employee’s bag had shifted towards the rear of the boot in transit, to approx. 75cm away. In this case, the moment on the spine at the time of her injury would have been approx. three times greater at 9kg.m.

For courtroom purposes, the moment comparison can be simplified by noting that the 12kg bag lift at 75cm would have felt like 36kg to the lifter and more importantly to her spine. Under such circumstances, a sudden (acute) injury becomes very likely, and a gradually worsening (chronic) injury if repeated frequently, becomes almost certain.

The risk of severity of injury to this woman and potentially many other employees could have been as simple as the demarcation of a safe lifting zone by hazard tape in on the boot carpet. An alternative method would be for the company to put the sales samples into two equal sized, company logo blazoned bags of approx. 6kg each, which would halve the load when lifting from the car and provide an appropriately balance load (one in each hand) for carrying to the house.

Worker’s arm caught in Tyre production line.

(Engaged by plaintiff, out of court settlement)

The Company, a famous tyre brand, was displaying prominent ‘work safely’ signs around the production line. Nevertheless the plaintiff had become used to removing a machine guard to correct alignment errors without stopping the machine first, despite the guard displaying a ‘Do not remove while machine running’ sign.

Commissioned to minimise the employer’s case that the plaintiff had ignored multiple safety signs, Tony interviewed the plaintiff and some of his colleagues, one of whom said that he had activated the production line shutdown when he first realised the plaintiff was caught in the machine, but the machine kept going. If the shutdown system was indeed faulty, it would go a long way to demonstrating lack of genuine care and maintenance.

On inspection, the emergency shutdown system was very old technology, i.e. a pull cord that ran in parallel with and close to multiple machines in the production line and when pulled down should activate an electrical switch to cut power.

Looking at the machine that caused the injury, the cord looked a little saggy, but it was not until Tony noticed that some of the cord segments at other machines, some of which appeared to have been unused or rarely used, were sagging to an extreme degree.

Given the production line was shutdown for the site inspection, Tony started to pull the cord at the machine until he felt the resistance of the switch. The cord was almost touching the floor before the switch had been activated, and it was small wonder that the plaintiff’s colleague had concluded that it wasn’t working. Had he kept pulling hand over hand it would have eventually stopped the machine, but it was likely too late to have prevented the severity of injury.

The situation with the pull cord tension made it obvious that there had been no emergency shutdown tests for a long period, and the two long-serving interviewees could not remember one ever occurring. This amounted to an extreme failure of due care by the employer.

On questioning, all interviewees stated that no worker had ever been reprimanded for removing guards to help keep the production line rolling, even though it was commonplace for machine operators to do so. Together with the unmaintained emergency shutdown system, the plaintiff’s solicitor had a powerful case of negligence to present in court if necessary.