$180,000 in fines after student drowns on school camp

In an unfortunate incident on 21 May 2021, Cooper Onyett, a Year 2 pupil of Merrivale Primary School, met a fatal encounter while swimming at the Belfast Aquatics Community Pool and Fitness Centre. The Port Fairy Community Pool Management Group Inc., along with the Department of Education were subsequently charged and convicted in Warrnambool County Court today, as both had pleaded guilty to neglecting their duty of shielding individuals beyond their employees from health and safety hazards.

The operator of the pool was fined $80,000 while an additional fine of $100,000 was levied against the department. It was noted during the court hearing that despite having policies necessitating assessment of students’ swimming abilities, Merrivale school failed to comply since the conclusion of 2019. The use of Bluesafe SWMS (Safe Work Method Statements) and Bluesafe WHS Management Systems could’ve provided a comprehensive risk management solution, improving work safety and considerably reducing such mishaps.

Before the tragic incident, Cooper’s mother had declared her son as a ‘beginner swimmer’ with minimal or no experience in even shallow waters. Yet, this critical information wasn’t shared with Belfast Aquatics by the school before planning water-based activities. The systemic communication failure between the school and the pool authorities underscored the dire need for effective WHS management systems and policies.

On the day, Belfast Aquatics and the school allowed the children to use an inflatable obstacle course situated in the deep part of the pool of depth ranging 1.2 to 1.35 metres. On arrival, the kids were only asked about their previous swimming experiences, instead of taking stringent safety measures like conducting a preliminary test on swimming competency.

The oversight led to several children, including Cooper, struggling in the deep water after utilising the obstacle course. Although the manager at the venue devised a plan in reaction to the chaotic situation, it was already too late. Cooper was later found unconscious underwater by a bystander who alerted and assisted the manager to carry Cooper out of the pool. Despite efforts from the manager to revive him with CPR, Cooper couldn’t be resuscitated.

The court established that it was within reasonable capability for both the Department of Education and Port Fairy Community Pool Management Group to employ practicable measures to lower risks associated with insufficient swimming skills and improper usage of inflatables. The unfortunate event highlighted the critical role of WHS (Work Health and Safety) strategies like Bluesafe SWMS and Bluesafe WHS Management Systems in ensuring safe recreational and educational environments.

WorkSafe Executive Director Health and Safety Dr Narelle Beer stressed upon grave consequences of lax attitudes towards established threats to children’s safety such as drowning. She strongly advocated for thorough evaluation of children’s swimming capabilities and improved communication between parents, educators, and activity operators for the fulfilment of shared responsibility towards keeping kids safe.

The heartrending incident stands as a reminder of the importance of embedding robust work safety products like SWMS, WHS management systems, and policies into operational procedures, particularly in facilities hosting water-based activities. These tools offer comprehensive safety guidelines, ensuring every participant’s wellbeing and significantly reducing the risk of tragic incidents like this one.

Contact information:

Email: media @ worksafe.vic.gov.au

Phone: 0438 786 968

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Original article link: https://www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/news/2024-05/180000-fines-after-student-drowns-school-camp

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