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Energy company fined after workers exposed to acid

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Date: 
Wednesday, 31 August, 2022 - 12:30
Category: 
Incidents & prosecutions
Location: 
Victoria

An energy company in Victoria has been convicted and fined $110,000 after two workers were exposed to toxic acid vapour in separate incidents at a Corio oil refinery in November and December 2017.

Viva Energy Refining was sentenced in the Geelong Magistrates’ Court after pleading guilty to two charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The company was fined $100,000 for failing to provide and maintain a safe system of work requiring employees to wear appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE) when working with equipment containing hydrofluoric acid.

The company was also fined $10,000 for failing to notify WorkSafe after an employee was exposed to immediate risk when acid leaked from a sampling cabinet.

The court heard that workers in the company’s MOGAS Unit used a sampling cabinet to test the hydrofluoric acid, which is used in the manufacture of a component of avgas and petrol.

A WorkSafe investigation found it was reasonably practicable for Viva Energy Refining to require workers to wear a higher class of PPE when working on equipment that contained, or may have contained acid, and fully enclosed PPE with an independent oxygen supply if acid was flowing through lines connected to the sampling cabinet.

Investigators found that the company’s operating procedure had previously required a higher level of PPE for these tasks, but PPE requirements had been reduced by September 2017.

WorkSafe investigators also found that the company failed to notify WorkSafe after a worker was exposed to a cloud of acid vapour while wearing only a helmet, goggles and gloves in November 2017.

In December 2017 a second leak resulted in a worker who was wearing a helmet, goggles and gloves requiring hospital treatment for acid exposure, including a prolonged sore throat and skin sensitivity.

Hydrofluoric acid was highly corrosive with the potential to cause severe bone damage, burns, skin and deep tissue ulceration, heart failure and death, said WorkSafe executive director health and safety Narelle Beer.

“Employers working with hazardous chemicals must do everything practical to ensure that workers’ safety is their highest priority,” Beer said.

“In this case workers were twice exposed to highly toxic clouds of acid vapour without appropriate PPE, with potential to cause serious injury or even death.”