Australian company faces huge fine after Tipperary backpacker suffered horrific injuries in machine accident

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Annie Dunne

Annie Dunne

A packing company appeared in a Magistrates Court in Victoria, Australia, yesterday, in connection with an accident in which a Tipperary woman received serious injuries.

Annie Dunne from Nenagh, suffered extensive injuries when her hair got caught in a mechanical conveyor belt at a packing shed in Shepparton Victoria, 200km north of Melbourne, as part of her conditions to obtain a second work permit for Australia when the accident happened on November 7, 2015.

Kalafatis Packing, the firm that runs the farm, appeared in Shepparton Magistrates’ Court, Victoria yesterday (Wednesday) on charges in relation to the 2015 incident at its packing shed in Shepparton East. According to Independent.ie, the company could face a maximum fine of $379,000 AUS, or €244,000.

Ms Dunne was cleaning the conveyor belt which was used to deliver pears for distribution when her hair became entangled in a rotating drive shaft. She suffered extensive damage to her scalp resulting in permanent loss of half of her hair and had only one ear. She had to get a prosthetic ear as a result.

Kalafatis Packing lawyer David Schiers told the court that the accident "shocked everyone". "This was the first serious accident at Kalafatis in 60 years, it shocked everyone," Mr Schier said.

He also said that language barriers among the staff could have contributed to the accident. "The person who is supervising might be Chinese, and the person picking up fruit might be Irish, so there can be difficulties with language," he said.

The court heard that at the time of the accident there was no requirement to isolate or shut down the conveyor belt during cleaning. It also heard that interlock guards, which would have added a layer of protection along the conveyor belt, had been removed and not replaced at the time of the accident.

Documents shown to the court showed that after investigations into the worksite there were a number of basic failures of safety. This included a lack of a lockout procedure for maintenance and cleaning of equipment, as well as guarding deficiencies along the conveyor belt where the accident took place.

Since follow-up visits from WorkSafe, Kalafatis had implemented changes based on the problems safety inspections raised, Mr Schier told the court.

A further plea and sentencing will take place on January 11 at Shepparton Magistrates’ Court, and the work-site will be inspected to see the improvements first-hand. The labour hire firm - T&R Contracting Shepparton Pty Ltd - pleaded guilty in January 2017 at Shepparton Magistrates Court to failing to provide a safe working environment as it had not provided instruction and training to the young backpacker. It was fined A$60,000 (€42,000) and had to pay another A$8,000 (€5,150) in legal costs.