A North Queensland businessman has been fined $65,000 over the death of an international backpacker who collapsed with heat stress while picking fruit in the Burdekin region.
The 27-year-old Belgian backpacker, Olivier Max Caramin, died on November 1, 2017, in Townsville Hospital, the day after he collapsed on a watermelon farm near Ayr.
Bradford Clark Rosten, who had employed Mr Caramin through his business Pumpkin Pickers, recently pleaded guilty in the Townsville Magistrates Court to breaching Queensland’s Work Health and Safety Act 2011 by failing to comply with his health and safety obligations.
He was fined $65,000 plus court costs of almost $1,600, and no conviction was recorded.
The case comes as the agriculture sector faces an estimated shortfall of 30,000 workers, which it will try to source from a pool of unemployed Australians.
Complacency about dangers of the job
The court heard Rosten employed about 200 workers each year and the majority were backpackers, who would be trained by the defendant and other supervisors on how to pick fruit on farms in the Burdekin district, south of Townsville.
Mr Caramin had been working less than a week when he became unwell, telling co-workers he could not go on.
Magistrate Ross Mack found Rosten had become complacent and the information provided to his workers, including the team members, was insufficient to identify heat-related illness, noting the deceased had displayed obvious signs on the day of his collapse.
An investigation by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland had reported training inadequacies for workers in how to manage hydration and nutrition in a hot environment and very limited information on heat-related illness.
Shelter from the sun had not been considered, and no planning had been conducted to determine whether picking could occur outside of the hottest part of the day, with the court finding complacency about the dangers of the job contributed to the man’s death.
The court accepted the defendant’s remorse and adoption of new procedures and found a future offence was unlikely, while also noting his early guilty plea and unblemished 23-year record in the industry.
Workers’ conditions need attention
Manager of agriculture for Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, Fiona O’Sullivan, said the case was a timely reminder about the state’s regulations for the farm sector.
“The workplace health and safety legislation has some very specific requirements for people who operate businesses and supply labour,” she said.
“They have to cover off on all the risks that a worker is likely to experience.
“In summer, in Queensland, heat stress is a really high-risk issue.”
Ms O’Sullivan said audits of the workplaces were being conducted and inspectors closely monitored the information that was provided to staff.
“Ensuring they drink water, they have adequate shade and they know what to do in the case of an emergency, so they can keep themselves safe,” she said.
“With any business, we have to manage the risks. Working in the heat of the day, if it can be avoided, should be avoided.”
Peak body acknowledges image problem
Growcom manager of policy and advocacy Richard Shannon said the tragedy had raised sector awareness of the risks of failing to comply with labour laws.
“Everyone in the industry has been aware of this case … it was a shocking death to have occurred and has given us cause to reflect on how we induct casual workers,” he said.
Growcom, which represents the fruit, vegetable and nut industries in Queensland, has encouraged farm labour firms to contact the organisation for support or the Office of Industrial Relations.
“It doesn’t help in attracting people to our industry, but at the same time it’s been an important wake-up call,” Mr Shannon said.
“It might make it harder to attract people to our industry, but ideally, the improved induction of employees will mean we’ll be able to keep workers in our industry longer.”