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$630k in fines for carwash businesses and director after chemical fire

Disregard of chemical safety requirements resulted in an explosion and fire.
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$630k in fines for carwash businesses and director after chemical fire

$630k in fines for carwash businesses and director after chemical fire

11 June 2021

Disregard of chemical safety requirements resulted in an explosion and fire that engulfed a man in flames, melting his shoes and clothing onto his skin and leaving him with serious burns to more than a third of his body. A court has convicted the companies responsible and an onsite manager, who all face heavy fines.

Explosion and fire at the carwash

A company operating a number of carwash businesses engaged another company in the same line of work to conduct the day-to-day operations of a Sydney suburban carwash, including providing staff.

On 13 April 2018, after two casual carwash attendants had finished cleaning the last car they went to the staffroom for a cup of tea. On opening the fridge to check for milk, one of them knocked over a container of a tyre shine product, spilling liquid over a square metre or so.

One of the workers got a wet and dry vacuum cleaner commonly used to clean up spills, whether chemical or not. When he changed the nozzle to a sponge nozzle and restarted it there was an explosion, and fire engulfed the room.

It caught the clothing of the worker vacuuming. He could not see anything, stood up, fell, attempted to stand again and hit the vacuum before falling again then managing to crawl out of the room, with the help of the other worker. While he was rolling on the floor to put the fire out his co-worker helped extinguish the flames using rags from a nearby trolley.

The other worker then removed his clothes and shoes as they were melting onto his skin. The sprinkler system inside the storeroom activated.

Fire and rescue, ambulance and police attended the scene. The burned worker was stabilised and rushed to the nearest hospital. He sustained serious injuries, including partial/full thickness burns to 35% of his body, including his face, both arms and legs, back and buttocks. He was later transferred to a specialist burns unit.

Safe Work’s investigation of the fire

When Safe Work NSW investigated, they found the burned worker had been given no safety training or instruction on flammable liquids, cleaning up chemical spills or the use of the tyre shine product. He did not realise it was a flammable liquid and could catch fire or explode. The substance was stored in a plain white can with no hazard or warning labels.

There was no updated or renewed safety data sheet for the heavy-duty industrial degreaser, nor was a chemicals register in place, and there had been no site induction of carwash workers.

Work health and safety had not been discussed at team meetings, as no such meetings took place. No one was allocated responsibility for developing, implementing and maintaining WHS management systems and processes. There was no safety shower or eye wash area at the carwash, and no safe work method statement for cleaning up chemical spills.

The Court’s view: staggering that such ignorant employers could run businesses

On hearing the evidence, the judge said it was clear to her that the company was trying to blame the incident on the worker. She found this was ‘disingenuous at the least’, and not supported by the evidence.

The safety systems at the carwash were wholly deficient. There had been no risk assessment, and no consideration given to the storage and use of hazardous chemicals, safety audits or the installation of a fire extinguisher.

The judge formed the impression that the ‘onsite manager’ and the co-worker present at the incident would say anything to try and escape any responsibility for the incident. She found that the risk was ‘not just foreseeable but was obvious, glaringly so despite the defendant’s attempt to plead complete ignorance of the possibility’.

The two companies and the onsite manager had demonstrated ‘a flagrant disregard for the safety of employees’.

‘It is staggering that the defendants were able to successfully run businesses, purchase property and enter into loans for investment properties if they were seized with the level of ignorance about all workplace safety matters. I am of the view that a large amount of their evidence was fabricated and they deliberately attempted to blame the young vulnerable victim for the incident that occurred,’ she said.

Each of the companies was fined $300,000 after a 25% reduction for their guilty pleas, and the onsite manager was fined $30,000.

The bottom line: Compliance with workplace chemical safety requirements is essential for mitigating the risk of fires and explosions.

Read the judgment

SafeWork NSW v JPS Car Wash Management Pty Ltd; SafeWork NSW v SRS Star Management Pty Ltd; SafeWork NSW v Sarjeet Sidhu [2021] NSWDC 148 (30 April 2021)

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