Allegations of alcohol abuse at dry camp

Two former workers at a State Government-commissioned housing construction project in the East Kimberley have raised serious allegations of alcohol abuse and mismanagement at its dry workers’ camp after the death of a 24-year-old man at the site last Sunday.

The Department of Housing contracted the Queenslandbased company, Ri-con Construction, to design and construct an art centre and nine new houses in the Warmun Aboriginal community for $5.1 million after flooding left its inhabitants homeless.

The site’s former health and safety officer Shane Palethorpe and chef Yianni (John) Smyrnios have blown the whistle, saying management failed to act on their concerns that drinking was rife in the camp, within a “dry” community subject to alcohol bylaws.

Both claim they were dismissed after repeatedly raising the issue.

Mr Palethorpe denied he had an axe to grind after being fired.

He said he had been “banging (my) head against it safety wise” and was frustrated his complaints were ignored.

He said he had personally seen workers drinking inside the camp and Warmun community residents “climbing fences … begging for alcohol”.

He said he was told the dead man, who was last seen alive at 1am on Sunday, had been drinking with other workers outside the camp before he died.

“We were told … they returned to camp about 1am very, very drunk,” he said.

The man was found dead outside his donga in the morning.

“The management of this company has been fully aware of this issue the whole time, and despite protestations and moves to rectify this by some camp members and company employees, nothing has been done to stop this substance abuse,” Mr Palethorpe said.

“It was only a matter of time before it resulted in a tragedy.”

“I kept on going back to management and referring it to them – they would say ‘we’ll deal with it’… nothing ever happened,” Mr Smyrnios said.

He claimed he was fired in July after a camp manager overheard him complaining about the alcohol issues to another worker: “The next day I was fired”.

He has since complained to Fair Work Australia about his dismissal.

Ri-con chief financial officer Don Littler said the allegations were “spurious” and “distressing” and strongly refuted any suggestion of mismanagement at the camp.

Any suggestions of alcohol being involved in the sub-contractor’s death were not based on any substantiated facts and the cause of death was yet to be determined, he said.

He said reports to management of alcohol consumption at the camp site had been thoroughly investigated and random bedroom checks carried out.

“On all occasions no alcohol was discovered,” he said. “

“No negative action has been taken against any employee as a result of reporting an alcohol issue,” Mr Littler said.

He also said random breath testing was conducted at the camp gates, which were locked each night at 7pm, with anyone who drank in designated areas outside the Warmun community denied re-entry until their blood alcohol reading fell below 0.05 per cent.

Worksafe said it was aware of the death and was making enquiries.

The Department of Housing has declined to comment.

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