News State SA News Safety issues before SA Police freezer death apparent for years, tribunal hears

Safety issues before SA Police freezer death apparent for years, tribunal hears

SA Police said it had taken steps to prevent a similar death occurring. Photo: ABC News
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South Australian Police failed to fix “obvious” workplace safety issues that would have prevented the death of a cook who became trapped in a freezer, a court has heard.

Debra Summers, 54, was employed by SA Police as a cook and a cleaner when she died at the Echunga police training reserve in October 2016.

Ms Summers died from hypothermia after becoming trapped inside a walk-in freezer that had a lock that was not working properly.

Two years after her death, SafeWork SA laid criminal charges against SA Police and the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure (DPTI), which is responsible for maintaining state government sites.

In December 2018, SA Police pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to comply with its health and safety duty.

During a hearing in the South Australian Employment Tribunal on Tuesday, prosecutor Jeff Powell, for SafeWork SA, said there were multiple work, health and safety breaches at the training centre that led to the tragic circumstances.

“There were multiple failures … They were long term and existed at this workplace for years and went unnoticed or unattended to,” he said.

“Not only were the risks of this event occurring foreseeable, but they were foreseen.

“Not only were they foreseeable, but they were obvious.”

Cook Debra Summers died of hypothermia in the freezer. Photo: The Advertiser

Freezer not serviced as required

He said the freezer, including its emergency release system, had not been serviced on a six-monthly basis as required.

“If it had of been adhered to, in our submission, in all likelihood the precise consequences here would have been avoided,” he said.

The court heard the employees at the site talked about the problems with the freezer door.

“They talked amongst themselves about what to do in case one of their members became trapped … this was a situation that persisted for years,” Mr Powell said.

“[The problem] was recognised formally by a document, that this was the sort of plant that required servicing, in particular, in relation to escape mechanisms.

“Despite that, it seems plain that there was never a hazard identification risk assessment performed on that freezer by the defendant or anyone else.”

Mr Powell said telephone coverage at the rural location was “almost non-existent” and that employees were required to attend work alone.

Police ‘acknowledged responsibility’

Frances Nelson QC, for the police, said the force had accepted responsibility for the failings.

“From the minute it was brought to their attention, they have conducted themselves as they should,” she said.

“They have not only acknowledged responsibility to the family, they have acknowledged it publicly and they have undertaken expensive and massive steps to ensure that nothing like this could happen ever again.

“Whatever the monetary penalty is, SAPOL will pay it and it will go to SafeWork SA.”

SA Police faces a maximum penalty of $1.5 million.

Mr Powell called for the case to be heard before a judge instead of a magistrate, who can only issue fines up to $300,000.

Magistrate Michael Ardlie granted the application and a new timetable for the case will be set at a hearing on Friday.

The charge against DPTI is expected to be dropped during a hearing in April after parties agree to certain measures the department would have to take.