TAFE fined $300K for horse riding death – implications for schools

The death of NSW TAFE student Sarah Waugh in 2009 while on a jackaroo/jillaroo course in Dubbo resulted in TAFE being fined $300,000 last week in the NSW District Court. The Court’s finding that TAFE failed in its duty of care provides important lessons to schools who may use external education providers (such as TAFE) as part of students’ study or extra curricular activities.

Note that a school or provider may be sued in negligence as well as being fined for health and safety breaches in similar circumstances.

What happened?

Sarah Waugh was 18 and was participating in a jackaroo/jillaroo course at TAFE’s Dubbo Rural Skills Campus when she died on 24 March 2009. Ms Waugh, a beginner rider, died following head and spinal injuries incurred when she fell from her bolting horse. Ms Waugh was riding the horse in a large paddock which had an open gate, when she lost control of the horse it bolted through the gate. It was later revealed that ‘Dargo’, the horse she was riding, was a race horse whose last race was less than seven weeks before to the commencement of the course. Another student had experienced problems riding Dargo shortly before Ms Waugh’s accident.

What factors contributed to the accident?

In the Coroner’s Report released in 2011 the Coroner made several key findings into the incident. The absence of a proper risk assessment of the activity meant that TAFE had not given sufficient thought to the risks and hence appropriate control measures.  The Coroner found that:

  • the course teachers lacked the experience to teach the course (in particular teaching beginner riders);
  • the procedures for procuring appropriate horses appeared to be inadequate;
  • the horses had not been properly assessed prior to the course commencing to determine whether they were appropriate for the activities and with the type of riders (this should have weeded out recent race horses being given to beginners);
  • supervision and monitoring of the riders and the horses was not adequate; and
  • the internal inquiry conducted by TAFE into the incident had been inadequate.

What should schools be aware of?

Schools that use external providers (such as TAFE) to provide courses of study or any other activities need to be aware of their obligations under Student Duty of Care and their relevant State and Territory registration requirements. For example in NSW, the Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards prescribe that non-government schools can outsource certain courses/subjects to external providers provided that (Non-Government Schools Registration Manual 3.2.3):

  • the school remains primarily responsible for the student; and
  • the courses outsourced comprise a minority of each student’s overall pattern of study.

In simple terms, schools need to make sure that they are sending their students into a safe environment. The first step is always to conduct a thorough risk assessment.  This will involve consulting with the external education provider and taking steps to ensure the students and the school  will not be exposed to unnecessary risks.  Examples of actions that a school may take include:

  • ensuring there is a clear and open communication between it and the provider to create an effective and well-informed relationship; this is critical for developing a risk assessment and identifying appropriate control measures;
  • checking that the external provider has well documented (and implemented) workplace safety procedures in place including adequate procedures for supervision of students, including initial assessment of students;
  • checking that the provider has safety procedures in place for procurement, assessment and monitoring, of animals and equipment;
  • checking the adequacy of the provider by checking references;
  • requesting a current public liability insurance certificate;
  • discussing who is responsible for first aid and other emergency procedures; and
  • checking the qualifications of the provider’s staff.

Obviously when sending students to study with external providers, schools also need to comply with their workplace health and safety (WHS) obligations.  For those schools that operate in States and Territories that have implemented the harmonised WHS laws refer to CompliSpace’s whitepaper for a detailed explanation of a school’s obligations when dealing with a third party contractor.

The NSW Registration Manual also requires schools to ensure that the external provider complies with child protection laws and that there is a written agreement in place that includes an outline of the respective responsibilities of the school and the  provider.

Ms Waugh’s death was the result of a sad culmination of deficient actions by TAFE. Don’t let your school suffer the loss of a student in similar circumstances.

Note: Safe Work Australia has recently released a guide to ‘Managing Risks When New and Inexperienced Persons Interact with Horses’ (Guide). Although the Guide focusses on risks presented to workers who use horses in the workplace, it is a useful resource to all horse riding providers and to those who use them – including schools.

Does your school use external providers for outdoor activities? Do you have policies for inherently risky activities?

 

About the author

Xenia Hammon is the  Editor – School Governance. She can be contacted here.

Xenia Hammon (Editor – School Governance)

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