A scathing report on the inquest into the tragic deaths of four people on Dreamworld’s Thunder River Rapids ride in 2016 was handed down by Coroner James McDougall on 24 February 2020.
The 300-page report condemned Dreamworld for their “shoddy” record keeping and safety systems that were “rudimentary at best”. The Coroner indicated that Dreamworld may have committed an offence under workplace law and referred the company to the Office of Industrial Relations to determine if any breaches had occurred.
Coroner McDougall said “there is no evidence that Dreamworld ever conducted a proper risk assessment of the ride in its 30 years of commission”. It was “unfathomable” and a “systemic failure” that hazard management fell to ride operators and staff to identify risks, rather than through formal engineering inspections. The Coroner identified that only one qualified engineer was employed by Dreamworld who had many responsibilities and found that the safety procedures that were in place were “frighteningly unsophisticated”.
Imprisonment under Industrial Manslaughter Laws?
“It is reasonably suspected that [Dreamworld] may have committed an offence under workplace law,” said Coroner McDougall, and that an accident eventuating in death at the park was considered “simply a matter of time”. If found to be in breach of WHS laws, Dreamworld’s parent company, Ardent Leisure could face fines of up to $3 million, with company executives facing personal fines of up to $600,000 and five years’ imprisonment under Queensland’s industrial manslaughter laws.
Recommendations of the Inquiry
The preliminary recommendations include:
- Regulatory changes be made in Queensland to improve the inspection and licensing of major amusement parks;
- Owners of an amusement ride must comply with updated Australian standards;
- Annual risk assessments be undertaken by a qualified engineer of all aspects of a ride’s operation, including possible emergencies; and
- Full inspections should be undertaken of rides every five to 10 years.
Serious Lessons for Employers
This tragedy has reinforced the need for thorough and systematic management of Work Health and Safety risks. Employers must:
- Ensure clear and effective safety procedures are in place to reduce (and ideally prevent) the incidence and severity of accidents;
- Have risk assessments and audits conducted by qualified specialists;
- Listen to and act upon concerns raised by workers; and
- Adequately train workers to ensure they are well equipped to make the decisions demanded by their position.
If Dreamworld had implemented such procedures this tragic accident may have been avoided entirely.
Further, the courts have demonstrated a willingness to impose the highest penalties for WHS breaches on both companies and individual officers. Duty holders must be diligent in meeting their WHS duties.