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$800K fine for reckless conduct after man's tragic death

A Queensland operator of a waste treatment facility has been fined $800,000.
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$800K fine for reckless conduct after man

$800K fine for reckless conduct after man's tragic death

11 December 2020

By Gaby Grammeno

A Queensland operator of a waste treatment facility has been fined $800,000 after flammable liquid waste from a tanker was released near a worker who was using a heat gun. When the vapours from the waste ignited, the worker was engulfed in flames and died.

The incident

The worker was employed with a company that operated a waste liquid treatment facility at Yatala, a suburb of Queensland’s Gold Coast.

On the morning of 5 November 2015, the worker was standing on a sloped concrete depression referred to as ‘the driveway’, attempting to repair a trash pump that would have been used to pump liquid out of a pit. The worker was using a 240V heat gun to heat up the end of the pump’s hose so that it would stretch to fit over the pump attachment.

A tanker arrived at the facility to deliver its contents of almost 7000 litres of liquid waste. The liquid had been collected from a service station and contained a mixture of water and petrol. At the time, all the areas at the facility for the storage of liquids were full.

The site manager directed the truck driver to discharge the contents of the tanker onto the driveway, as had previously been done with other deliveries of waste liquid from time to time, though this contravened an existing company procedure for the receipt of flammable liquids at the facility.

At first, the liquid released into the driveway was mostly water that had settled at the bottom of the tank, but after a while, a pink liquid smelling of petrol began to flow from the tanker. Vapours from the petrol that had accumulated around the driveway were suddenly ignited. The worker was enveloped in flames and sustained fatal burns. Another worker standing nearby was able to run to safety.

The company was charged with reckless conduct under s31 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, an offence with a maximum fine of $3 million.

In Court

Beenleigh District Court heard evidence that the driveway did not comply with the requirements of the Australian Standard for the storage and handling of flammable and combustible liquids, AS 1940:2004.

The cause of the ignition was either the radiant heat from the heat gun or a spark from the internal motor of the heat gun.

There was no adequate system in place for testing loads of liquid to determine their contents before their reception at the facility. While the company had some written procedures concerning receiving and handling flammable goods, the workers at the facility were generally unaware of those procedures.

Moreover, workers were not given any specific training in relation to the handling of and use of heat sources around hazardous materials, beyond an instruction that there was to be no smoking, welding or oxy-cutting at the site. It was common practice for workers to use heat guns at the facility when repairing pumps.

The judge formed the opinion that there was no reasonable excuse for the company not to have in place a system to prevent the use of ignition sources in proximity to flammable liquids. That conduct exposed workers to the risk of death or serious injury from flammable liquids or vapours igniting, and the company had been reckless as to that risk.

His honour said that the risk had been obvious and could have been entirely avoided by the company refusing to accept the delivery because it had no safe storage available at the time.

In sentencing, the judge took into account the letter of remorse tendered by the director of the company, the timely plea of guilty and the fact that the company had no previous convictions for work health and safety offences.

However, he considered a substantial fine was appropriate, having regard to the catastrophic outcome and the effect on the worker’s family.

The company was convicted and fined $800,000.

The bottom line: It was incumbent on the company to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and safety of its workers, given the high risk of ignition involved with flammable liquids.

For more information

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