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August 3, 2021
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WA business owner jailed after pleading guilty to gross negligence that led to death

Esperance Court House

A small-business owner in Esperance has become the first person in Western Australia to be jailed for gross negligence, after the death of a young worker last year and serious injuries to another.

Key points:

  • Jake Williams, 25, died in March last year after falling off a shed on a farm near Esperance
  • Co-worker Fraser Pinchin, 21, was seriously injured in the same incident
  • Shed building company MT Sheds and its director, Mark Thomas Withers, pleaded guilty in March

Mark Thomas Withers, the sole director of shed building company MT Sheds, was jailed for eight months and his company fined $605,000 when his sentence was handed down in Esperance Magistrates Court.  He was also personally fined $2,250.

It was one of the first cases in WA since harsher penalties were introduced for breaches of workplace safety laws in October 2018.

Defence lawyer Heather Millar told the court that Withers, who pleaded guilty in March, was “aware he has death on his hands”.

Magistrate Genevieve Cleary’s sentence included an additional 18 months’ imprisonment, but that was suspended for 12 months.

“This was more than merely momentary inattention,” she said.

“I have determined that it is appropriate that Mr Withers serve some period [of imprisonment] immediately.”

Two workers fell from shed

Two workers employed by MT Sheds in March last year were installing roofing on a shed at a farm in Beaumont, about 100 kilometres east of Esperance, when they were hit by strong winds.

The willy-willy (whirlwind) lifted a sheet from the pack of roof sheets they were installing and caused both workers to fall.

Jake Williams, 25, died after falling around nine metres from the apex of the shed.

According to an online crowdfunding campaign set up for his family after his death, Mr Williams was a father of three.

His 21-year-old co-worker, Fraser Pinchin, suffered multiple fractures of the pelvis, hip, wrist and ribs after falling about seven metres from the shed’s gutter line.

‘Well aware of the risks’

WorkSafe‘s investigation found that neither worker held the necessary high-risk work licences for the job they were performing and neither wore a safety harness.

The safety regulator also found that MT Sheds allowed Mr Williams to undertake construction work without a construction induction training certificate, known as a white card.

The court heard Mr Pinchin had worked for the company for more than three years and would not know how to use a safety harness.

Prosecutor Dan McDonnell told the court there was a “failure to implement safety systems and supervise for a long period of time”, that the risk of an incident of this type occurring was not low and “there was a knowing acceptance of the danger”.

“Mark Withers was well aware of the risks,” the prosecutor told the court.

“He’d been in construction for 30 years — 20 years building sheds. He knew exactly what was required.”

Withers’ lawyer supplied the court with character references from a primary school principal and football club president that described him as a “kind, caring, family man”.

Ms Millar, citing a psychological report, said Withers was “haunted by flashbacks of the accident” and was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

She said he would be deemed a high suicide risk if sent to prison.

The court heard MT Sheds has ceased trading and Withers had moved onto other employment.

Withers will be eligible for parole after serving four months.

Source: ABC Goldfields 24 May 2021