No retrial over electrocution during army exercise

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Charges dismissed: The Victorian Supreme Court has upheld the decision of a magistrate to dismiss workplace safety charges over an exercise at Puckapunyal. Photo by supplied

The dismissal of two workplace safety charges against the Defence Department over an exercise at the Puckapunyal Training Area in 2016 that ended with two soldiers being injured when a mast contacted overhead powerlines has been upheld by the Victorian Supreme Court.

The charges stemmed from an incident during a night training exercise on July 4, 2016.

As part of a training course conducted by the Royal Australian Corps of Signals, a group of trainees was tasked with assembling a temporary radio mast known as a ‘Clark mast’.

The Clark mast consists of a telescopic mast stabilised by three levels of four guy wires, with a removable telescopic antenna fitted at the top of the mast.

The exercise was ultimately undertaken at a different location to the site which had been approved for the training. No daytime reconnaissance had been conducted at the new location and approval for the relocation was not sought or obtained as required.

About 7.50pm, a group of trainees began raising the mast into a vertical position and it came into close proximity to overhead energised high-voltage power lines, causing an ‘arcing event’.

One trainee received an electric shock and was rendered unconscious, while another trainee sustained burns.

After a nine-day hearing which concluded in November 2020, a magistrate dismissed two charges under the Workplace Health and Safety Act.

While at the original hearing the magistrate found there was a “cavalier willingness to depart from the strict protocols in place, the ‘safe system of work’ and shift to a site, which had not been either viewed in daylight or adequately inspected with white light to reveal the presence of the serious hazard of overhead powerlines”, strict protocols govern operations at Puckapunyal and detailed planning and safety protocols were drawn up for the exercise at a known site.

A daylight inspection would have been required for a new site, but one of the officers in charge had done previous training in the area where the exercise was conducted.

The finding was that appropriate systems and safeguards were in place and several officers “departed from the strict requirements of the respondent’s existing system of work in an entirely unforeseeable way”.