The Department of Defence has become the first Australian government entity to be successfully prosecuted for breaching work safety laws, after a cadet sustained serious injuries.
A spokesperson from the federal Work Health and Safety Act regulator Comcare told The Mandarin the conviction and sentence was the first completed prosecution of the Commonwealth since the Act came into effect in 2012.
On Monday, Defence pleaded guilty to “exposing a person to risk of death or serious injury”. The charge related to an incident in 2016 when a 14-year-old boy fell down a cliff during a camouflage-and-concealment activity at an annual camp at Colo in Sydney’s north-west.
The cadet was reported missing when he had not returned from a trip to the toilet. He was found an hour later at the bottom of a cliff, and was airlifted to hospital with fractures to his skull and spine, broken wrists, nerve damage, amnesia, and a severe traumatic brain injury.
Downing Centre Local Court heard the student had spent three weeks in an induced coma and continues to suffer from cognitive, social, and emotional issues. The cadet’s father said his son had to leave school due to the injuries.
The level of adult supervision at the camp was “wholly inadequate” despite the risky terrain, according to prosecutor Patricia McEniery. She argued the Commonwealth had a responsibility to provide a safe environment for the teenagers.
Comcare said Defence owed duties to the cadets as workers under the WHS Act, as members of cadet units are “carrying out work for a business or undertaking conducted by the Commonwealth”.
“Comcare’s investigation identified a failure to conduct a risk assessment to identify hazards and risk-control measures for the activity and ensure appropriate supervision throughout the exercise. These are important requirements to ensure health and safety risks are minimised or eliminated,” the regulator said in a media statement.
Magistrate Roger Prowse ordered the Commonwealth of Australia to pay a fine of $300,000 for breaching section 32 of the WHS Act. He argued Defence was not a first-time offender, as there had been previous deaths of cadets at camps.
Appearing for Defence, barrister Wendy Thompson said there has been increased supervision at the camp and greater vetting of all cadet activities at a command level since the “foreseeable” event occurred.
The national commander of the Australian Army’s cadet program, brigadier Michael Ashleigh, expressed regret for the incident.