Wilmar Sugar Australia was found not guilty of failing to comply with health and safety duties in a court trial after the death of John Erikson at the mill in 2012.
Wilmar Sugar Australia was found not guilty of failing to comply with health and safety duties in a court trial after the death of John Erikson at the mill in 2012. Peter Carruthers

Verdict reached in Wilmar Sugar trial into worker's death

WILMAR Sugar Pty Ltd was today exonerated of any guilt in the death of a man at the Proserpine sugar mill six years ago.

A charge against the company of failing to comply with its health and safety duty was dismissed in Proserpine Magistrate's Court this afternoon.

The not guilty finding comes after three days of testimony into the death of plant operator John Erikson, who was hit by a cane bin and crushed against the braking system inside the mill on November 11, 2012.

Witness testimony and CCTV footage from inside the mill showed Mr Erikson leaving the smoko room and walking along a passageway to the bin recoupling area, when he stepped over a yellow safety line and was hit from behind by a cane bin coming down a railway track from the tippler - where the cane is tipped out of the bins - behind him.

At the time of Mr Erikson's death, the mill was operated by Sucrogen Australia Pty Ltd, which later changed its name to Wilmar Sugar Pty Ltd.

In the three-day trial in Proserpine this week, Division of Work Health and Safety Queensland prosecutor Cate Hartigan argued that Wilmar Sugar had failed to control risks in the corridor where Mr Erikson had been walking when he was killed, as well as failing to properly identify that risk or hazard and assess it.

Ms Hartigan argued that safety fencing should have been erected, gates locked and the door from the smoko room locked to stop access to the area - as was done after Mr Erikson's death.

"If workers were prohibited from using that corridor and used the alternate route, the risk could have been eliminated,” Ms Hartigan told the court in her closing address.

Ms Hartigan also argued company procedures did not specifically refer to safety when walking along the passageway.

Instead it only referred to people who were specifically working in that area.

Defence Queens Counsel Richard Perry said workers had it "drummed into them” to look at the tippler as they were coming out of the smoko room, be aware of moving bins in the area, stay outside the yellow lines and beware of complacency.

"The issue we are looking at here... is whether people walking down the corridor are walking outside the yellow line,” he said.

"If one kept outside the yellow line, one could not be hit by the bin coming down the track.

"Every worker knew the rules from training, an assessment, orally, and from doing a walk-through,” he said.

"There is no evidence workers were not conforming to training to keep outside the yellow lines.”

Mr Perry also argued that authorised workers still needed to use the area for cleaning and it could not be blocked off completely, but that his client had done the right thing by implementing the yellow safety line and providing a safe area behind it to work.

The trial heard evidence from eight witnesses - three of whom saw Mr Erikson as he walked from the smoko room and was hit by the cane bin.

Another two were mill workers who were not there when Mr Erikson was hit, but who spoke about what they knew about safety procedures in the mill at the time.

A Work Health and Safety inspector spoke of his investigation into the incident, and an engineer gave evidence of how fast the bin, that hit Mr Erikson, would have been moving.

Magistrate Simon Young dismissed the charge brought under the Work Health and Safety Act.

"Why he stepped across the line is something we will never know,” Mr Young said.

"I'm not satisfied they (Wilmar Sugar) breach Work Health and Safety.

"I'm not satisfied there were other practical things they could do to mitigate the risks.”

In a statement released after the trial yesterday, Wilmar Sugar welcomed the decision.

"Safety is, and always will be, a priority for Wilmar,” a Wilmar spokesman said.

"We recognise that the trial has been a difficult time for Mr Erikson's family and friends, as well as colleagues who witnessed the accident.

"We hope the decision provides some closure for all concerned.”

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