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Serious acid burns led to heavy fines

A court has fined the company and its director $270,000
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Serious acid burns led to heavy fines

Serious acid burns led to heavy fines

28 April 2020

A court has convicted an employer for safety failures that caused serious acid burns to two workers and resulted in fines totalling $270,000 for the company and its director.

The company was involved in recycling used batteries, processing chemical and industrial waste, and the storage and handling of large quantities of hazardous chemicals. Management had replaced a relatively safe acid product with a much more hazardous one without telling its staff, changing its processes or training its workers in emergency procedures.

Sprayed with acid

The incident occurred in March 2017. A process chemist who usually performed duties in the site’s laboratory was working overtime in the water treatment plant as that area was short staffed. He was carrying out a task he had not previously undertaken – treating a batch of liquid waste by adding concentrated sulphuric acid and lime to a tank – when he noticed that a flexible hose line connected to the tank had ruptured.

He informed the supervisor, who directed him to close off the valves to the tank and seek out a maintenance fitter for a replacement hose. The fitter had finished his shift and was leaving the site when he was approached by the chemist for assistance.

As he had finished work for the day, he told the chemist how to replace the hose rather than complete the task himself. The replacement hose was to be taken from a nearby system that was not being used. Neither man had replaced a flexible hose on the tank before.

Neither of them knew that at the time the hose was being disconnected, it was pressurised and contained 98% sulphuric acid. When the chemist disconnected the locks on the hose, both men were sprayed with the concentrated sulphuric acid.

They ran right past four nearby safety showers, which were poorly marked and which they evidently didn’t know they should use. They ran upstairs another 60 metres to the men’s locker room showers, where they showered for 30 minutes without first removing their contaminated clothing.

They were then taken to hospital by ambulance, with serious chemical burns to their faces and other parts of their bodies. Some of the burnt areas required skin grafts and ongoing treatment.

The company’s safety failures

As well as replacing an acid ranging in concentration from 10% to 70% with a much more concentrated acid and leaving workers unaware of this substitution, the company did not use safe systems of work. An appropriate safety data sheet was not available to workers, and the hose involved in the incident was not a chemically rated high grade hose suitable for the transfer of 98% sulphuric acid.

The pipes, hoses and valves connected to the tank were not labelled or otherwise identified by way of signage, and workers were not able to easily determine what hazardous chemicals were in the pipe work and the flexible hoses.

No risk assessment was carried out in relation to the task involved in the incident, the relevant standard operating procedures (SOP) did not provide information or instruction relating to sulphuric acid, and nor did they provide information or instruction to workers in the event that a hose became damaged or leaked.

The SOPs’ instruction to workers if a hose became blocked – ‘Check hose is not blocked. Unblock hose’ – was woefully inadequate. A system audit had not identified the risk of workers being exposed to hazardous chemicals while replacing flexible hoses.

There was no formal documented training of workers in using, storing and handling specific hazardous chemicals at the site, or in the use of appropriate personal protective equipment. Workers had not been trained to remove contaminated clothing if exposed to hazardous chemicals.

Training in emergency procedures and emergency drills were infrequent and not documented. There had not been any emergency training or drills for at least five or six years before the incident.

There was no regular inspection or maintenance regime in place to check that safety showers were working, or to inspect valve fittings, hoses, and pipe work to detect leaks or faults.

The executive director of the company had not ensured compliance with the relevant requirements under work health and safety laws.

In court

The District Court of NSW found the company and its director culpable in relation to all these matters, imposing a fine of $225,000 on the company as well as costs of $44,972, and a fine of $45,000 on the director. Both fines were reduced by 25% to reflect the plea of guilty.

The bottom line: Unsafe practices with hazardous chemicals can cause disabling injuries. Employers must ensure WHS requirements are complied with.

Read the judgment

Safework NSW v Hydromet Corporation Pty Limited; Safework NSW v Jeremy Perera [2020] NSWDC 82

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