Employment consultancy fined $50,000 over workers lost in remote location

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An employment consultancy has been fined $50,000 (plus $4631.65 in costs) over an incident in which two female workers became lost in a remote location north-east of Kalgoorlie.

MAXNetwork Pty Ltd pleaded guilty to failing to provide and maintain a safe work environment and was fined in the Kalgoorlie Magistrates Court today.

MAXNetwork was contracted to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations to consult with disadvantaged job seekers, in this case through their office in Kalgoorlie.

A number of employment consultants work at the Kalgoorlie office, and they regularly travel to remote areas - some accessible only by dirt roads and narrow tracks - to work with job seekers.

In December 2009, two of the company's Kalgoorlie area employment consultants were instructed to do an "outreach visit" to the remote community of Tjuntjuntjara, around 600km north-east of Kalgoorlie in the Great Victoria Desert.

The two consultants departed Kalgoorlie in a Toyota Prado leased by MAXNetwork at around 6.00am on a journey estimated to take nine to ten hours on a road with no signs that was a narrow track in some places.

The women were not provided with a map, GPS or any other navigational aid, and consequently they became lost. They had received no training or instruction on travelling in remote areas, and so did not know what to do in the event of becoming lost.

The satellite telephone provided to the consultants did not work, and management was aware of this prior to the trip. In addition, there was no schedule for regular contact with workers in remote locations so no-one realised the women were overdue.

The vehicle did carry an EPIRB, but neither woman had been adequately trained or instructed in its use and it was not turned on correctly. They had not been trained in driving or maintaining the vehicle, instructed to take more food and water than they needed or provided with first aid training.

MAXNetwork's Area Manager received a call from the Tjuntjuntjara Community at about 4.30pm on the day of the trip, asking when the consultants would arrive. The Area Manager said she believed the women were just running late, and did not try to contact them on the satellite phone. She sent a text message to one of the women during the evening, but the mobile phone had no reception.

Unaware they were on the wrong track, the two consultants drove through the night, hoping to find the community and dialling 000 on the satellite phone, which was displaying "invalid account". They had not been told the emergency number for the satellite phone was 911.

At around 5.00am, after 23 hours of constant driving, the consultants came across the Ilkulka roadhouse, outside of which was a public telephone that one of the women used to telephone her husband, who contacted the Area Manager to tell her that the two women were lost.

The Area Manager tried to activate the EPIRB to locate the women, but nothing came up and she was unable to locate the vehicle. Soon after, the husband of one of the women arrived at the office with his wife on his mobile phone, and she was told to push the "I'm OK" button to activate the EPIRB.

They were eventually met by the roadhouse's caretaker, who made some temporary repairs to their vehicle, gave the women some tips on four wheel driving and loaned them his GPS and satellite phone. They arrived at Tjuntjuntjara in the middle of that afternoon.

WorkSafe WA Commissioner Lex McCulloch said today the case was a shocking example of an employer failing to provide and maintain a safe work environment for employees.

"These two employees were not provided with anywhere near the amount of training, instruction and functioning equipment necessary for ensuring safety when travelling in remote locations," Mr McCulloch said.

"For an organisation that regularly sends employees into remote areas, this level of neglect really is inexcusable.

"We all know WA is a vast state, and there have been many tragic examples of people losing their lives in remote locations because they have set out largely unprepared.

"Since this incident, the employer has implemented a range of measures to address the hazards of outreach visits, including risk assessments, checklists for mechanical checks, driver safety and equipment, emergency response procedures and training in four wheel driving and operating communications equipment.

"However, these procedures should have been in place all along, and it was indeed fortunate that no real harm came to these two employees. There could have been a very different outcome.

"This case should send a loud and clear message to any organisation that operates in remote areas that it is absolutely crucial to provide employees with adequate training and instruction and properly maintained and functioning equipment on every trip they undertake.

"As a minimum, WA's workplace safety laws require isolated employees to be provided with a means of communication in case of emergency and a procedure for regular contact.

"WorkSafe's Guidance Note on Working Alone provides information on how to comply with the laws, and every workplace that has workers who travel to remote locations should keep a copy of this guidance material in the workplace."

Further information on working in remote locations and copies of the Guidance Note on Working Alone can be obtained by telephoning WorkSafe on 1300 307877 or on the website at www.worksafe.wa.gov.au.

Media contact:
Caroline De Vaney
9327 8744 or 0408 927563 (media enquiries only).
Follow @WorkSafeWA on Twitter.

Media release
15 Aug 2012

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