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QMN taxidermist acquired Q Fever infection

The Board of the Museum has entered into an “enforceable undertaking” with the Office of Industrial Relations. (Supplied).

Talissa Siganto, Queensland Museum taxidermist acquired Q Fever bacterial infection at work in Australian first, court hears, ABC News, 29 March 2023

A Queensland Museum taxidermist contracted a bacterial disease while prepping exhibits in a national medical first, but their employer will never be prosecuted for breaching its workplace health and safety duties.

The case was revealed in a sentencing hearing held in the Brisbane Magistrates Court on Tuesday, for another employee of the museum.

Museum worker Maria Thornton pleaded guilty to the category 2 offence of failing to comply with a workplace health and safety (WH&S) duty last week, but the details of the offending were not released until Wednesday.

The Board of the Museum had also been facing charges, but the court heard it had since entered into an “enforceable undertaking” with the Office of Industrial Relations, meaning it would no longer face prosecution.

Between 2015 and 2019 the court heard Thornton was employed by the state government-funded museum in South Brisbane as a WH&S risk manager.

The court heard the museum includes a taxidermy department, known as the “evisceration area”, which is used to prepare exhibits and contains animal carcasses, flesh, organs, and fluid.

While working in this section, two women contracted Q Fever, a zoonotic disease which is caused by the spread of the bacterium Coxiella burnetii from animals to humans.

A WH&S investigation found one of the women likely became infected elsewhere, but determined the other, who was a taxidermist, acquired a chronic case of the infection while at work.

The woman suffered a serious spinal abscess and the court heard it is the first known infection of Q Fever in the taxidermy industry across the country.

Biological hazard raised after seminar

The court heard at the time, there had been numerous safety policies in place for this department, but no specific procedures in relation to this disease.

Defence lawyer Eleanor Lynch told the court the charge had been a result of her client’s “diligence” in her role, in trying to seek guidance from a supervisor about Q Fever.

“She attended a [biological hazard] seminar … then proactively sought out further instructions about what to do about zoonotic diseases,” she said.

“It is fair to say, if she had not done this she wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

The court heard despite Thornton being advised the probability of Q Fever being contracted in taxidermy being “very low”, she had started the process of creating a specific risk assessment for its exposure but did not complete it.

WH&S prosecutors accepted Thornton had taken steps to start to address the risk but failed in her responsibility by not finalising and implementing the work safety procedure.

Thornton has ‘exemplary record’, not an executive

The court heard Thornton was a “community-minded woman” who regularly volunteered, held an “exemplary record” in her safety career until now and had since moved into a human resources role at the museum.

“No-one from the museum will have to go through that [court] process,” she said.

“Ms Thornton is left to take responsibility for this matter.

“She doesn’t hold an executive role … she is a worker.”

Thornton’s case was described as “exceptional” by the magistrate and instead of issuing a hefty fine which was sought by the prosecution, she was only given a good behaviour bond and no conviction was recorded.