A large national company with ties to an international entity which specialises in the manufacturing and supply of industrial gases was recently fined $200,000 for a breach under section 32 of Queensland’s Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
The prosecution by the Office of the Work Health and Safety Prosecutor followed an incident on 14 May 2018 at the defendant’s Wacol workplace.
At the time, a worker was manually discharging carbon dioxide from a 100-tonne tank to reduce the pressure.
The pressure in the vessel needed to be reduced through manual venting over a period of nearly one month as the refrigeration unit which previously maintained the pressure in the vessel had been shut down and no liquid carbon dioxide was being extracted from the tank for making dry ice. Manual venting wasn’t a task the tank was designed for or a routine job done by workers.
There were no procedures in place on how to perform manual venting, nor was any instruction given to workers on how they should do it.
As a result, workers developed their own measures to vent pressure in the tank, and these measures could at best be described as ad hoc.
On the day of the incident, an experienced worker opened valves on the tank to allow carbon dioxide to flow through unsecured flexible hoses to reduce pressure.
However, one of the unsecured hoses suddenly whipped upwards and struck him on the head. He sustained significant injuries, including a severe traumatic brain injury, and later died in hospital.
The 60-year-old was an experienced worker familiar with the large tank and the dangers associated with venting pressurised carbon dioxide through unsecured hoses.
However, he had unclipped the hoses from a nearby bollard and placed them on the ground to vent the carbon dioxide.
Post-incident, the defendant made changes such as implementing a work procedure for manually venting vessels.
It also spent approximately $100,000 on inspecting similar tanks and making modifications to them.
The prosecution alleged that the defendant should have implemented a safe work procedure for manually discharging carbon dioxide from the vessel to reduce pressure and appropriately instructed workers.
In sentencing, the Magistrate noted the task of manually venting this vessel was not routine or part of the company’s usual business, there was no risk assessment conducted although the issue had been discussed at higher levels within the company, no short-term solution was in place to manage the problem and the defendant was aware workers were using ad hoc methods to deal with it.
The Magistrate took into consideration the defendant’s early guilty plea, that it wasn’t a rogue operator – but rather a sophisticated corporation and good corporate citizen which surprisingly left workers to adopt ad hoc work processes, had no history of offences against the Qld WHS Act and had fully co-operated with the Workplace Health and Safety Queensland investigation.
The Magistrate also noted the company’s post-incident behaviour which, while not a fix for what happened, shows it took this breach seriously and should be reflected in a reduction in penalty, the cost involved in remedying the situation and the remorse shown by the company’s senior management.
The company was fined $200,000 plus professional costs of almost $1,600, and the Magistrate said the penalty served as a punishment for the defendant corporation which breached the Act and sent a message to others.
He also noted general deterrence looms large and significant penalties send a clear message to the general public that such breaches can result in serious consequences.