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Company convicted after inexperienced workers burned

A company and its director were convicted and fined in the NSW District Court.
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Company convicted after inexperienced workers burned

Company convicted after inexperienced workers burned

26 May 2020

An auto repair company and its director were convicted and fined in the New South Wales District Court, after an inexperienced worker and a work experience student received burn injuries when hazardous chemicals ignited during the production of biofuel.

The incident

The Nowra-based business was engaged in providing mechanical repairs and services for motor vehicles and jet skis. It also operated a small used car dealership and manufactured biofuel, that is, energy made from renewable biological feed stocks, either crops or waste.

To produce the biofuel, the workers had to follow a series of steps involving the mixing and heating of ingredients including vegetable cooking oil from a local restaurant, methanol, pottery plaster, methylated spirits, turmeric and lye (sodium hydroxide).

On the day of the incident, a 19-year-old worker was directed to make a batch of biofuel. It was only the second time he’d been involved in this task, and he told his supervisor he did not feel he was competent to make biofuel and that he was nervous about doing it.

His supervisor – the sole director, head mechanic and manager of the company – said he would train him and get him comfortable with the task. However, he only supervised the worker during the initial steps of the process.

The young employee mixed 40 litres of methanol with sodium hydroxide for five minutes in a bucket, using a mixing attachment on a drill. He then asked a 16-year-old student – who was on his first day of work experience – to help him, and the two of them carried the bucket of methanol/sodium hydroxide mix over to the mixing vat. The gas burner underneath the vat was still lit. Before the bucket was poured into the vat, the mixture ignited.

The worker’s clothes caught on fire. He ripped off his clothes, and another worker turned on a nearby hose and doused him with water for 15 minutes. He was later intubated due to pain and for airway protection, and flown to a hospital in Sydney for treatment, having suffered burns to his legs, hands, face and eyes.

The work experience student had been thrown backwards by the flames, and suffered flash burns to his eyes.

In court

The company and its director were charged with failure to comply with their duties under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) and exposing the employee and the work experience student to a risk of death or serious injury.

The court heard evidence that the system of work was inherently dangerous. The gas burner used to heat the mixture had been inappropriate – it had a naked flame and was designed for outdoor leisure and camping and not to be used near flammable materials. The business was using it indoors, in close proximity to highly flammable and toxic chemicals.

The LPG cylinder was used incorrectly, and the hazardous chemicals were inaccurately labelled and inappropriately stored.  For example, the sodium hydroxide was stored in a former mayonnaise container with the word ‘acid’ written on the lid.

The workers had not been adequately trained in the manufacture of biofuel, having only received a general verbal induction the workplace.

Nor had they been provided with any personal protective equipment (PPE). The safety data sheets (SDS) for the methanol and sodium hydroxide specified recommended PPE, but the SDS were not readily available to the workers and they had not been told about them.

In addition, management did not ensure they were given adequate supervision while manufacturing the biofuel. The person nominated on the work experience placement forms as being primarily responsible for the supervision and support of the student was unaware of this and was not directed to supervise him.

The reasonably foreseeable hazards associated with making biofuel at the workplace had not been identified. No risk assessment had been carried out for the biofuel manufacturing process and suitable risk control measures were not in place.

Both the company and its director were convicted of offences, and fined $135,000 and $22,500 respectively, plus costs. The fines had been reduced by 25% to reflect the plea of guilty.

The bottom line: Safe systems of work are essential with hazardous chemicals and sources of ignition. Foreseeable risks must be identified and controlled, and young, inexperienced workers must be given the information, training and supervision they need to stay safe.

Read the judgment

SafeWork NSW v O2 Motorsports Pty Ltd; SafeWork NSW v Weissel [2020] NSWDC 201

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