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Shoe-less workers' long stretch ends

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Footwear retailer Betts Shoes  has been in business since 1892 – and only now will their “basement” staff be required to wear shoes.

The almost “old world” work practices were revealed in the Industrial Court yesterday when Magistrate Michael Ardlie fined the Betts Group $33,000 after an incident involving a worker, a mesh cage, a broom handle and the wearing of socks.

Basement staff, the court heard, commonly wore socks “because employees were required to stretch shoes which were not comfortable”.

In another twist to the case, the injured worker later resigned, but thanked the employer for “the opportunities given”.

In submissions made to the court, the company, once known as Betts and Betts, said it had made changes to procedures and spent $22,000 to fix the goods lift that had been central to an incident where firemen were called to free a worker.

It’s the first time the fifth-generation family company had been before the Industrial Court.

The court heard that Rebecca Carr was injured on 30 May 2011 when attempting to free the jammed basket of a goods lift used to move stock from the basement to the shop-floor of Betts’ Rundle Mall store.

While trying to free the jammed basket, the sock-wearing retail assistant slipped and hit her head against a steel rail before falling onto the ground, hitting her head again and sustaining back and shoulder injuries.

When ground floor staff, serving customers, needed shoes held downstairs, it was Carr’s job to load the shoes into the goods lift – a three sided metal cage around a mechanical hoist.

“Inside the metal cage were two metal baskets which ran on separate tracks attached to the wall,” the court heard.

“The hoist was operated from the basement and at ground level using buttons which allowed the left and right basket to operate independently.

“Leading up to the incident a request was received for some sales bags and shoes to be sent up from the basement. The employee retrieved the goods and placed the same into the right basket of the hoist. The left basket was already at store level.

“The employee generally used the right basket because the left basket was often faulty. Whilst the right basket was ascending it jammed under a ledge at ground level. It was not uncommon for one or both of the baskets to become jammed.

“What followed was the emergency stop button was pressed. An employee at ground level used a broom handle in an attempt to release the jam. She was unable to do so and asked the employee to see if she could free it from the basement level using the broom handle.

“The broom handle was dropped down the hoist shaft to the basement.

“The employee climbed through the opening into the hoist shaft, there being nothing to prevent access into this area.

“There was no mechanism to prevent the employee from doing this nor was there any mechanism to cut power to the hoist to stop it from operating whilst she was in the shaft.

“The employee at the time was wearing socks on her feet, this being common in the basement because employees were required to stretch shoes which were not comfortable.

“The employee climbed onto the ledge of the opening and then proceeded to climb higher up the mesh cage of the hoist shaft.

“She balanced on the railings of the cage and used her right arm to hang onto the mesh cage.

“She used her left arm to operate the broom handle in an attempt to free the jam.

“ She was successful in releasing the jam. Both left and right baskets started to descend to the basement.

“The employee slipped, hit her head against the steel rail at the rear of the shaft against the wall and fell to the ground where she again hit her head and right shoulder rendering her momentarily unconscious.

“Both baskets continued to descend but did not contact the employee because there was a gap between the bottom of the basket and the floor of the shaft.

“Firemen were called to release the employee from the shaft.

“The employee was then conveyed to the Royal Adelaide Hospital. She suffered injury to her back and shoulder requiring physiotherapy.

“She had time off work to recover and received payments of workers compensation and eventually returned to full-time employment.”

SafeworkSA investigators were soon on the scene and the company was quick to respond, the court heard.

“The hoist is now equipped with interlocked gates that prevent access to the shaft whilst the hoist is operating.

“The gates can only be opened once the baskets are stationary.

“A partition has been installed to separate the left and right baskets.

“This overcomes a potential cause of the baskets becoming jammed namely when the contents of the two baskets may interfere with each other.”

The company also developed a “Safe Operating Procedure” – it prevents employees from entering the hoist shaft.

“It also stipulates that the baskets are not to be over filled and requires employees to wear shoes.”

The use of broom sticks has also been ruled out.

The company admitted to the prosecutor’s version of the incident and didn’t dispute that it should be convicted and fined.

It did admit, however, that “there were maintenance issues with the hoist with the maintenance contractor being called at least seven times in the two years prior to the incident”.

“It is conceded that there should have been no occasion on which the employee was permitted access to the hoist shaft.

“With youthful exuberance and in an attempt to fix a problem in the absence of any structural protocol the employee put herself at risk. Fortunately the risk did not materialise into more significant injuries.”

Taking into account the early guilty plea, the company’s cooperation and record, the Magistrate discounted the estimated penalty by 40 per cent resulting in a fine of $33,000.

“Over its long period of operation it has not prior to this incident transgressed the health and safety legislation that is in place throughout Australia,” the court noted.

After 121 years, the basement workers of Betts & Betts won’t be wearing socks – so who will stretch the shoes now?

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