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After workplace tragedy, sugar firm loses legal battle

The late John Erikson, described as a man with heart of gold who was caring and funny.
The late John Erikson, described as a man with heart of gold who was caring and funny. Contributed

A SUGAR milling company has lost a dispute over prosecution after an employee was fatally crushed in a workplace tragedy.

Proserpine man John Erikson, 46, was killed in November 2012.

Wilmar operated the sugar mill where he died.

The company wanted an "enforceable undertaking" instead of being criminally prosecuted for Mr Erikson's death.

Wilmar operated eight mills and had a good health and safety record, a new Queensland Supreme Court judgment found.

And since the accident, Wilmar had invested in safety upgrades.

Justice James Douglas said Wilmar helped Mr Erikson's family with funeral arrangements and donated equipment to a hospital to treat crush injuries.

Mr Erikson walked into the path of an empty cane bin at the Prosperpine mill.

He was "walking down a corridor next to the train track along which empty cane bins travelled after they had been tipped up and emptied," Justice Douglas wrote.

A yellow line marked the corridor off from the track area.

"Mr Erikson walked across that yellow line in front of an empty cane bin travelling down the ramp ... was struck in the back and caught between the bin and the fixed braking system," the judge said.

It was not known why he walked across.

"It was probably momentary inadvertence."

No previous incidents might have alerted Wilmar to the likely risk of such an event, the judge added.

Mr Erikson was taken to Mackay Base Hospital for treatment but died soon after.

The mill was shut for 24 hours out of respect.

Singapore-based Wilmar bought the mill less than a year before the tragedy.

It spent about $5 million improving operations, Justice Douglas said.

Wilmar "went to considerable efforts to propose an enforceable undertaking instead of being criminally prosecuted for the death of the worker at the mill," the judge wrote.

After the accident, Simon Blackwood, as health and safety regulator, appointed an independent panel.

The panel unanimously recommended Mr Blackwood accept the enforceable undertaking.

But Mr Blackwood did not, and Wilmar wanted to challenge his reasons for not doing so.

Wilmar's application meant the hearing of the criminal charge stemming from Mr Erikson's death was adjourned.

Wilmar said Mr Blackwood failed to take into account the company's good health and safety record.

Justice Douglas disagreed.

"When one reads [Mr Blackwood's] reasons as a whole it seems quite apparent to me that he has addressed comprehensively the reasons why he reached the conclusion he did.," Justice Douglas wrote.

"He was particularly concerned that the occurrence involved a fatality to a worker."

Mr Blackwood said he considered Wilmar's point of view.

He decided prosecution served the interests of health and safety better than the enforceable undertaking would.

Wilmar's application was dismissed.

-NewsRegional

Topics:  agribusiness health and safety john erikson justice james douglas mackay base hospital proserpine proserpine sugar mill simon blackwood singapore sucrogen whitsunday region wilmar workplace accidents

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