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Worker buried alive in quarry wall collapse

Date

Nick Toscano

A Victorian quarry worker who was killed when a mine wall collapsed and buried him alive had been excavating an area that the operators now say should have been cordoned off.

Adrian Dowell, 48, was operating an excavator in a South Gippsland sand quarry four years ago when water seepage sparked a landslide that engulfed his vehicle, a court heard.

"Get down here, I've been swamped," were the last words he shouted through the radio.

Co-workers found Mr Dowell's body inside the cabin of the excavator, which had its windows smashed in and was filled with dirt and mud.

Forensic examiners later determined he died of asphyxiation.

Tooradin Excavations - formerly TGS Sand and Soil - operated the sand quarry at Nyora at the time and were investigated by WorkCover.

The company's manager director, Gary Morrison, last week pleaded guilty in the Victorian County Court to serious workplace safety breaches.

Charges included failing to take all reasonable steps to prevent access to the area, which had been identified as unsafe before the landslide, and failing to have suitable systems in place to identify and understand geotechnical dangers.

The Department of Public Prosecutions said the maximum penalty for the charges at the time of the offence was $1,075,000.

Mr Dowell, who had worked at the company for a decade, had clocked on at 6am in the morning on November 22, 2010, and was excavating the quarry's front pit where the landslide would occur.

The quarry manager had warned him the slope where he was working looked "dodgy" after days of heavy rainfall, noticing water seepage about four metres above the floor on the pit wall, the court heard.

Mr Dowell was advised to leave the area and work on a section about 50 metres away, before the quarry manager left the site for lunch at 12.15pm.

Ten minutes later, Mr Dowell's distress call came through on the radio. Co-workers raced to the scene of the landslide but Mr Dowell had died by the time they arrived.

A WorkCover report found that the slope where the landslide occurred was "formed of weak materials" that were "further destabilised by water". The company was aware of the water seepage on the morning of Mr Dowell's death, but failed to adequately cordon off the area.

"[The company] knew water was present and seeping on the slope of the morning of the landslide," according to the DPP.

"Their systems of work did not include barricading or other forms of demarcation ... and they did not have in place systems to provide for identification and understanding of geotechnical hazards."

Tooradin Excavations' defence counsel told the court that the part of the mine was due to be decommissioned, and agreed that barricading the area "was a step that, if taken, would have had the potential to reduce the risk".

"Mr Dowell was someone who had absolutely no history of doing anything unsafe, anything reckless, anything ill-considered," the court heard.

"His loss has certainly hit Mr Morrison hard."

Judge Richard Maidment said Mr Dowell's death was a "tragic loss". The company's penalty is expected to be handed down in coming weeks.

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