Emil Ford Lawyers

What to consider before sending your students out on work experience

Alex was a 15-year-old boy interested in football, cricket and gaining some work experience in the area of metal work. In 2013, he started a day of work experience at the premises of Tho Services Limited (‘Tho’). By the end of that day he had done serious and irreversible damage to his eyes, could no longer read without large font and had to give up the sports and activities that he loved. So what went wrong?

While Alex was at school, he had picked up some of the basics of welding. He also became fairly familiar with the protective equipment needed to weld – the footwear, gloves, safety glasses and face shield. However, the welding helmet that Alex used at school was automatic. When he began to weld with this helmet, the visor on the helmet automatically darkened to adapt to strong light-emitting sources.

Unfortunately, the helmet that Alex used on his first day of work experience was a manual helmet. The visor on this helmet had to be manually pushed down over the eyes to protect them from any burning or permanent damage during welding. Although he was provided with a ‘visitor induction’ and two documents to read through and sign, Alex was never specifically told of the need to eliminate the risk of eye damage by lowering the visor of the welding helmet over his eyes. Even though he was supervised at various stages throughout the day, this was not enough to prevent Alex from exposing his eyes to harmful light on multiple occasions. It was only at the end of the day that another staff member noticed that Alex’s visor was up. Alex was immediately removed from the workspace, and his father was called to take him home.

At the first instance, the judge gave Tho “a slap on the wrist”. The trial judge found that Tho had failed its primary duty of care – to reasonably provide for the health and safety of the worker (Alex) that it had engaged. The trial judge also found Tho’s failure to comply with its health and safety duty resulted in Alex being exposed to a risk of serious injury or illness. However, Tho pleaded guilty and the trial judge ordered that the charges be dismissed and only ordered the company to pay the sum of $28,000 to cover the prosecution’s costs.

On appeal, Justice Harrison set aside the orders made by the trial judge and convicted Tho for its breaches of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. It also fined the company $240,000. In making this decision, Justice Harrison referred to the fact that ‘strictly speaking, the sentence was not manifestly inadequate so much as it was non-existent’. It failed to have regard to the seriousness of the offence, and did not properly consider that the breaches represented a systematic failure of all protocols and induction procedures that had been put in place to prevent injury.

The irreversible harm Alex has suffered should make schools think carefully about the places at which students opt to complete their work experience placements. Host employers certainly have WHS obligations to students who are involved in work experience or internships. However, schools or educational providers responsible for placing students in work experience positions may also have duties under the Act to ensure that student’s safety. Schools and other educational providers may be able to avoid repeating this tragic situation by taking steps to understand the host company’s workplace and any risks or dangers that might be involved. They should be liaising with the host company to ensure that they adhere to their WHS duties, both prior to and during the placement or internship.

If you would like to know more about your obligations to your students and what steps you can take to protect yourself from situations like Alex’s, please contact  for more information. 

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