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Changeover dangers: ‘It’s an industry wide issue’

With appropriate rest areas and changeover sites often scarce, among the countless other challenges truckies face, it’s not surprising that truck driving is often listed as one of the most dangerous professions.

A recent court ruling saw the now defunct Scott’s Refrigerated Logistics fined $800,000 for workplace health and safety breaches that contributed to a line haul driver’s death at a notorious changeover site in Clybucca, NSW.

When Scott’s driver Darren Bowden left for work one evening in July 2021, tragically he never returned.

Bowden, who was 51 years of age, lost his life when he was struck by a truck travelling in the northbound lane on Macleay Valley Way in Clybucca, while swapping trailers with a colleague at around 12.30am.

SafeWork NSW alleged that Scott’s should have performed a risk assessment at the site that took into account the speed, volume and proximity of traffic at the location; lighting and visibility; the condition of the road surface; and the location’s size.

It said Scott’s should have enforced a safe system of work for the changeover, provided workers with adequate information, training and instruction on the risk of being struck during changeovers, and ensured they wore adequate high-visibility clothing at changeover locations.

Scott’s required its truck drivers to park at designated locations across Australia to conduct changeovers. The company had designated a BP service station as its Clybucca changeover site, but when the service station closed in 2016, drivers began swapping trailers on the shoulder of the adjacent road.

The court heard that changeovers at this site were being performed in poor lighting conditions without hi-vis vests; with the designated work site migrating onto a dangerous stretch of road, with a posted speed limit of 100 kilometres per hour.

According to court documents, Scott’s was aware of what was happening but continued to direct workers to conduct changeovers there.

In interviews with SafeWork NSW inspectors, other workers had reported safety concerns about the Clybucca changeover site.

NSW District Court Judge Wendy Strathdee heard that while Scott’s policies required line haul drivers to be provided with and wear approved high-visibility vests, some workers were not provided with these vests and others complied with the rule “to varying degrees”.

The court also heard that about 140 changeovers took place on this stretch of road each week.

The person behind the wheel of the truck that struck Bowden was a co-worker, who had previously complained to his employer that the Clybucca changeover site was crowded and unsafe. Following that conversation, he began conducting changeovers at an alternative site. He was actually travelling past the Clybucca site to that alternative location for a changeover when the incident occurred.

Cara Szellemes with Darren Bowden. Image: Cara Szellemes

Nearly three years on from the incident, Bowden’s partner Cara Szellemes says she’s still coming to terms with the loss.

“I knew he was in a dangerous job and there were a lot of different things that could unfold. But this sort of accident happening was the last thing I would have thought of,” she said.

“When his supervisor and his CEO showed up at the door and sat us down to tell us what had happened, it was the most devastating day of my life. And I’m still living with the impact of that.

“It’s had an impact on every area of my life. It’s such a waste because he was really fit and healthy, really looked after himself, he was very safety conscious, and he was very active in the union too for his entire career.”

Szellemes said that Bowden had worked for Scott’s for a number of years and chose to do changeovers so he could be home on weekends so they could spend time together. “And that was his choice. My preference probably would’ve been different from a safety point of view. Because when you’re doing those overnight changeovers, it can take a toll.”

While Bowden had spoken of the Clybucca changeover site to Szellemes, it wasn’t until she visited the site after his passing that she realised just how dangerous it was.

“He hadn’t really ever told me it was super dangerous or anything like that. My understanding was that it was at a service station but I didn’t realise the service station had been closed for years.

“When I found out the drivers were literally pulling up on the side of the road, I was quite shocked by that,” she explained.

“I’ve been to that stretch of road to lay flowers as a memorial. Even just having my car parked on the side of the road, with the speed of vehicles coming across that stretch, you really had to look.

“Now, imagine eight trucks parked on either side, travelling at 100km/h on a narrow stretch of road. There were a lot of near misses.”

Once one of the country’s largest trucking fleets, which transported temperature-controlled freight across Australia, Scott’s went into external administration in February 2023. This happened after charges were laid by SafeWork NSW – and the liquidators did not appear at the trial.

This has raised questions over whether or not the $800,000 will ever actually be paid.

“I’m glad the judge came down with a conviction, although in the grand scheme of things, I don’t know really how it will impact change because obviously the company has gone into administration,” Szellemes added.

“Any amount of money is a drop in the ocean compared to the loss of someone whose life is priceless. If it ever is actually paid, one would hope it goes towards affecting some sort of positive change.

“Unless there’s actual change across the board, I feel like any amount is really not going to make a difference. In terms of Scott’s’ liability, it’s pretty evident that there was negligence going on. But at the same time, it’s not just a Scott’s issue, this is an industry wide issue.

“I don’t know what it will take to transform the way these businesses operate. It seems like a hard problem to solve but surely there is some sort of solution.”

Bowden had worked with Scott’s Refrigerated Logistics for a number of years. Image: Cara Szellemes

Szellemes believes that much more needs to be done to ensure truck drivers aren’t being put into these sorts of dangerous situations. “How many more people need to die before something changes?”

According to the local Kempsey Shire Council, the out of service petrol station where the incident occurred was being used as a changeover site at the discretion of the haulage operator.

“As the road authority, council has not issued any approval for the site to be used in this way. Following the incident and resident complaints about noise and safety, council installed ‘No Stopping’ zones at this location in October 2022. As far as we are aware the site is no longer used as a changeover site,” said Kempsey Shire Council director of operations and planning, Michael Jackson.

He says the council relies on NSW Police to ensure any haulage vehicle changeovers, or parking within its local roads, is undertaken in accordance with NSW’s road rules – adding that the safety of these operations is the responsibility of haulage operators.

Jackson says that changeover sites currently used by trucks within the shire are at the Pacific Motorway rest area, approximately 9km south of the Stuarts Point Interchange, and the South Kempsey interchange service centre.

When Big Rigs approached Transport for NSW (TfNSW) for comment, a spokesperson said, “Transport for NSW does not designate truck changeover sites, however, we recommend all commercial operators encourage their workers to do so in the safest way possible.

“The NSW Government is aware of the difficulties truck drivers face when trying to find a safe and reliable area to rest, park, shower and access services. Transport has several rest stop improvement projects underway at various phases of investigation, planning, design and delivery.”

But high profile truck driver and trucking safety advocate Rod Hannifey says he’s been asking for more rest areas on the Pacific Highway for the past 20 years – and still not much has been done.

“I said you are aware of the fact that people are doing changeovers at Clybucca then, before the road was done up, and the volume is going to increase when you finally finish it, and there should be provision for a changeover site on the Pacific Highway,” said Hannifey, adding that this should have been considered when the road was built.

Hannifey says he’s lost count of the number of times he’s raised the issue with TfNSW. “Why isn’t TfNSW a party in the chain of responsibility in this action?” he asked.

“They have failed their duty of care. They are negligent by the fact they were aware of this and did nothing.

“It’s not like it’s only yesterday we started doing changeovers in the road transport industry. They built one on the Hume so they know the need exists. They are aware of how much that gets used and how busy it is.

“They know B-doubles operate – depot to depot – and all of those factors mean that from where I sit, they were negligent by not doing anything about it at all.”

Hannifey says the dangers lie in the fact that there isn’t a proper facility for changeovers, especially at peak hour at night. “The alternative would have been to do the Kempsey changeover right and tack on to that site. But Kempsey is not big enough.

“That’s another failure. When the opportunity came they could have simply tacked on to that site and that would have been something instead of ‘Oh, let’s just stick our head in the sand and hope the problem goes away’, and that’s how I believe they’re treating it – get somebody else to build it.

“I can’t convince them that our lives are worth anything to them. I know it’s a substantial amount of money. But why aren’t truck drivers’ lives worth investing in? That’s the question.”

Commenting on the court ruling against Scott’s, National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) executive director statutory compliance, Raymond Hassall, said the legal action taken was legitimate, although rarely undertaken. “Findings of guilt can play an important role in general deterrence,” he said.

“The NHVR places the highest priority on driver safety and advocates for choosing a site that is safe for changeover, taking into account surrounding conditions. This approach is important for minimising risks to drivers and the broader community.”

A spokesperson for SafeWork NSW also told Big Rigs of the significant risks associated with conducting changeovers or undertaking maintenance at the roadside, with the risk increasing by the speed, volume and proximity of traffic in the location.

Providing advice for employers, SafeWork NSW said, “Where the need for changeover cannot be eliminated, keep workers safe by undertaking a site-specific risk assessment. This needs to take into consideration the area’s size and proximity to plant and vehicular traffic, as well as lighting and visibility, any overhead wires or slopes, and the general conditions of the area.”

According to SafeWork NSW, companies should develop and enforce a safe system of work to ensure workers are separated from moving plant and vehicles; and drivers should be provided with information, training, and instructions in relation to the risks of being struck by traffic during changeovers.

“Workers have the right to cease unsafe work if they have reasonable concern of a serious risk to their health and safety,” SafeWork NSW continued. “They will need to inform their employer or the person conducting the business or undertaking that they have ceased work. If the issues remain unresolved, they can contact SafeWork NSW on 13 10 50 or via SafeWork’s SpeakUp App.”

1 Comment

  1. Hannifey is bang on the Mony here, why is the Road authority not a part of the Chain of Responsibility? They are responsible for oversight of the road network, they have an obligation to build a road network that is Fit for Purpose. So far in 50 odd years travelling our highways & byways I remember failure after failure.
    Once in a Blue Moon, a new bit of road opens up and drivers are pleasantly surprised, but unfortunately all to often it’s the usual disappointment of either rubbish quality of the actual structure or the design is just not fit for purpose.

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