University of New South Wales (UNSW) Australia Fined in Boat Accident

On 31 July 2009, UNSW (Australia) School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences was conducting a field trip in Darling Harbor. Students were to visit sites within the harbour using an outboard powered RIB and move on to other nearby destinations.

The boat operator (a University research assistant with a boat operator license) was turning at about 10 to 12 knots, lost control of the Zodiac RIB, and three passengers were ejected. A student (Ms. Gall) among those ejected was seriously struck by the boat or propeller.

The University was sued by WorkCover NSW in New South Wales (NSW) Industrial Court for failing to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 2000, and fined $100,000 (Australian dollars).

The boat was found to have been too heavily loaded in the bow, creating bow steering, which caused the boat to inadvertently steer to the left or right.

Following the accident, UNSW implemented several safety changes and has since logged over 500 boating days without an accident.

Importance of This Fine

While the claims are not specific as to the injured party being struck by the boat OR by the propeller, this case comes on the heels of the Australian Military Being Fined $210,000 for Not Using Propeller Guards.

Together, these two workplace cases set a considerable precedent. Workplace Safety Australia is going to be investigating workplace propeller injuries to determine if the employer had proper safety practices and equipment in place before the accident, and charging employers that fail to safeguard their employees.

New Zealand has been seeing several propeller accidents recently and is obviously watching what is going on in Australia. The U.K. is still responding the high profile fatality of Charlie Hutton, along with many other propeller accidents. As we visit with people “in the mix” in the UK they are very aware of what is happening in Australia on this front and many other propeller safety issues.

These cases are setting a significant precedent for workplace propeller safety around the world, and a wakeup call for those manufacturing recreational boats and marine drives as well.

Proceedings of the Court

A lengthy summary of the UNSW boat accident case is provided by the Industrial Relations Commissions of New South Wales (the Court).

Inspector Dean Selby prosecuted the case: Inspector Selby v. University of New South Wales. The case was heard on 14 March 2013. The ruling came on 21 March 2013.

The University initially plead not guilty. The charges were amended (several charges were dropped) and the University plead guilty in late October 2012. As a result of pleading guilty, once UNSW was found guilty the Court gave them a 15 percent discount of the fine and the prosecution agreed to pay half as well (since they are both part of the “state”). The University was also billed $35,000 Australian for court costs. The boat was identified as a Zodiac.

The amended charges were:

  • UNSW failed to instruct, warn, or train passengers they were required to be seated in seats or on the floor, NOT on the buoyancy tubes.
  • UNSW failed to instruct, warn, or train passengers to wear personal floatation devices (life jackets) when on the Zodiac

The amended charges, to which the University plead guilty, removed eight points (charges) the University was previously accused of not being in compliance with.

The removed charges included:

  • The owners manual not being onboard and easily accessible.
  • Failure to assure the number of passengers did not exceed the previously established limits of the vessel.
  • Failure to conduct a safety briefing.
  • Failure to produce a written safety procedure for passengers.
  • Failure to train passengers to use safety equipment including life vests.
  • Failure to train employees in safe operation of the vessel, including not allowing passengers to sit on the buoyancy tubes when underway.
  • Failure to identify who was responsible for supervising the passengers.
  • Failure to conduct a risk assessment to identify the risks that could be encountered that day, such as sitting on the buoyancy tubes, overloading, and failing to conduct a safety briefing.

The proceedings identify numerous initiatives the University has since taken to prevent similar accidents from happening again.

The maximum possible fine in this case was $825,000 (Australian dollars).

After being struck by the boat or propeller, Ms. Gall was struggling to stay above water. Another student dove in and pulled her back to the Zodiac.

UNSW did not possess a copy of the Zodiac’s owners or operators manual which clearly warned of the dangers of sitting on buoyancy tubes at planing speeds and in sharp turns.

Wearing life jackets and sitting in seats or on the floor of the vessel were simple steps that could have been taken to prevent drowning.

The court noted UNSW represented employers that spent considerable time and money to prepare and distribute safety rules but came up short in an important aspect. They failed to recognize the need to continuously audit and review existing safety rules and amend them as needed without waiting for an accident to call some new risk to their attention.

The court said these two convictions illustrate even employers with a good safety record and with many safety rules in place, can still see their most detailed rules fail and thus should be encouraged to “continuously scrutinize those rules to ensure their effectiveness.”

A 15 percent discount to the fine was allowed for pleading guilty.

The court noted the University is an educational institution (a non-profit organization), already operated under extensive safety rules, added more safety rules after this accident, exhibited contrition and remorse, paid for Ms. Gall’s medical expenses, and cooperated in this investigation.

Half of the $100,000 will be paid by the prosecutor in way of moiety (because they are both part of the same government).

UNSW will pay $35,000 in prosecution costs.

The vessel was a 5.85 meter, center console Zodiac Pro 600 powered by a 60 HP Suzuki 4 stroke outboard. The Zodiac was purchased new by the University in April 2000 from GoodTimes Marine. The capacity plate stated a maximum capacity of 16 people.

Details of the Accident

The University used the Zodiac and another vessel, a Stabi Craft, on the date of the accident. Water conditions were very good, little wind, sunshine, and excellent visibility.

The Zodiac operator was experiences. He had driven the vessel about once a week for the past 1.5 years. A total of 9 persons were onboard.

Enroute to Darling Harbor (also called Cockle Bay), the Zodiac encountered a disabled vessel. They towed the disabled boat back the headland of Rose Bay, then headed back toward Darling Harbor. Just as they entered Darling Harbor, they met the Stabi Craft exiting the harbor. The Zodiac operator asked those on board if they wanted to go ahead and see Darling Harbor or to turn around and follow the Stabi Craft to the next destination of the tour. The group elected to follow the Stabi Craft. The Zodiac operator started to turn right at 10 to 12 knots in an 8 knot speed zone. With considerable weight in the bow the Zodiac was hard to steer. When it did finally steer it stayed flat in the water instead of rolling. Staying flat created more drag on the hull which finally turned abruptly.

Three passengers on the left, including Ms. Gall, were ejected. Passengers on the right side of the vessel were thrown forward. The loss of weight on the left side caused the vessel to roll to the right. At that point, the operator lost control. The bow dug deep into the water and the stern whipped around to the left. Those on board heard the motor rev up and it was temporarily up out of the water.

When the stern slapped back down, they heard a thud (thuds are often reported those on board when someone is struck by a propeller) the operator and and least one student noticed someone had been hit. The operator turned the Zodiac around to view the area and they saw Ms. Gall struggling to stay afloat. The student jumped in, swam to her, pulled her back to the vessel, and others helped pull her onboard.

The other two people ejected were also pulled back onboard. Those onboard tended to Ms. Gall’s injuries and applied a tourniquet/bandage to try to slow her bleeding. The Water Police happened to be nearby, witnessed the accident, and immediately provided assistance. An officer boarded the Zodiac, provided first aid to Ms. Gall, and drove the Zodiac to the Sydney Water Police base station only about 500 meters away. Another officer requested an ambulance. When they hit shore, the officers continued to minister to Ms. Gall till the ambulance came. Paramedics treated Ms. Gall and took her to royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

After the Accident

The UNSW provided counseling services for the other students and employees.

On August 9, 2009 GoodTime Marine inspected the Zodiac for the University. They found no running, performance, or safety issues with the vessel. They did note that if the motor was not trimmed correctly OR if there was too much weight in the bow, the vessel exhibited bow steering problems (inadvertent turns to left of right).

On 15 September, 2009 NSW Water Police issued a citation to the boat operator for negligent operation of a recreational vessel resulting in grevious bodily harm and fined him $500 (Australian Dollars).

The University did not have a copy of the boat operators manual, or the boat owners manual, or the outboard owners manual. They did have a copy of the outboard owners manual. The University purchased a copy of the Zodiac owners manual after the accident.

The University has since:

  • Required all boat users to wear approved life jackets
  • Purchased cushions for sitting on the floor
  • Banned sitting on the buoyancy tubes at planing speeds, in rough water, and in sharp turns
  • Purchased new life jackets that were easier to wear than the previous bulky ones
  • Developed and implemented a Safe Work Procedure for the Zodiac
  • Trained all Zodiac operators in the new Safe Work Procedure
  • Updated and improved its introduction to boating course
  • Developed and implemented a course for Zodiac drivers that included steering, weight distribution, and man overboard issues
  • Installed a propeller guard on the Zodiac
  • Required Zodiac operators to have a coxwains license, and a minimum of 15 supervised driving hours before they can operate the vessel unsupervised
  • Worked with NSW Maritime to prepare a Safety Management System for the Zodiac
  • Developed numerous safety documents and materials for use with the Zodiac, some of which have already been mentioned, plus quick reference guides, checklists, and a boating log ( We noticed they published several safety documents for the Zodiac online.

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