Coles fined $170,000 over 2007 whiplash injury

Date: May 04, 2012

Australian supermarket giant Coles has been fined over $170,000 after the enterprise was found to be negligent in its responsibilities to employees when a worker fell through the ceiling.

The New South Wales industrial court heard that in 2007 a store attendant – a 42-year-old woman – was sent to retrieve promotional material that was kept on a suspended plasterboard ceiling.

The suspended surface was not rated for human traffic and subsequently gave way – sending the victim falling the two metres to the hard floor below.

She suffered lacerations to her head, whiplash injuries and substantial bruising across her body as a result of the fall and was subsequently taken to hospital for medical treatment.

An investigation by officers attached to WorkCover NSW found that the parent company was aware that the roof cavity was not suited for storage purposes or pedestrian activity.

To its credit, the organisations had posted up warning signage around the area and erected a handrail barrier to keep workers out.

However, the investigators alleged that the company did not perform an adequate assessment on the weight-bearing properties of the plasterboard roofing before it was used as a storage area and also failed to inform staff that it was not suitable for this purpose.

The organisation responsible – Coles Supermarkets Australia – pleaded guilty before the industrial court and was fined $170,000 in addition to paying WorkCover's legal fees.

The general manager of WorkCover NSW's Health and Safety Division John Watson expressed his concerns over the fact that the company concerned had so many staff members relying on its policies and procedures to reduce their exposure to risk while on the job.

"It is critically important that these types of hazards are identified at the workplace design stage and all reasonable and practicable steps be taken to eliminate the risk of work related injury or illness," said Mr Watson.

"Following this incident Coles has initiated a number of steps to eliminate re-occurrence, including a new plywood barrier to block off all access to the dangerous area and issuing a safety alert to staff."

While whiplash injury claims can provide fall victims with the funds needed to return to health – paying for medical care and rehabilitation therapies – it is much better for businesses to ensure that risks are handled correctly.

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