NSW - Two officers sue police force after being exposed to toxic drug fumes

Thursday, 3 May, 2012 - 10:00
Incidents & prosecutions

Two police officers were seriously ill after accidentally breathing toxic fumes at the Sydney drug exhibit centre.

One of the police officers were administered the last rites as he lay on life support three years ago. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the victim was on induced coma after his lungs completely shut down. Four months earlier, the victim and a fellow policeman was perfectly healthy, until they were directed to conduct a “drug audit” in March 2009 at the Sydney Police Centre’s drug exhibit centre.

They went to an overcrowded 4×5 metre room and were confronted with shelves of drugs and other chemicals up to 15 years old. Some of the drugs they were to audit had been used in prosecutions as far back as 1996. Court destruction orders were attached to these drugs but they had remained in the unventilated room.

The toxic fumes met the officers as they entered the room. Temperatures of up to 40 degrees increased the conversion of these chemicals to harmful vapours.

Three years have passed but neither of them can work. The two officers sued the NSW Police Force for damages, saying that there was severe negligence on the part of their employer. Court documents seen by The Sun-Herald says that the victims “were not given any training to conduct a safe audit, there was no mention of any safety precautions, special equipment or what to do in case of an emergency or exposure to drugs.”

The victims also claimed that were not issued with masks, gloves or any protective equipment. One of the officers said that they smelled an “intense strong chemical odour” as they were beginning the drug audit but their superiors neglected to address their concern.

Both victims claim that on March 18, 2009, a particular toxic exposure directly contributed to their dire medical conditions. They were examining a cardboard box containing 10 bags. One of the officers removed one bag and saw that it contained a bulk beige powder. He noticed that the plastic bag had disintegrated and that it had a strong smell. Seeing the potential for further danger, he once again requested for personal protective equipment but was told that there was no budget for it.

As the days went on, one of the victim’s condition worsened and he began to suffer severe headaches, coughing, a burning sensation in his nose and throat, shortness of breath and occasionally tasted blood in his mouth. He went on to suffer a second exposure to the toxic drug fumes a month later, this time in the high-security bulk drug safe at Sydney police headquarters in Surry Hills.

The other officer did not return to work after the first toxic incident. However, his condition worsened, with severe tightening in his chest, asthma, sleepless nights and anxiety especially after he was told that his colleague was on life support and may not live. His colleague pulled through after three weeks in coma.

Both victims sued the NSW police with alleged negligent acts, including failing to provide a safe system of work and protecting them from risk of physical, mental or psychiatric injury.

WorkCover is prosecuting the police force for breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act but it has not pleaded guilty. The police force will file its defence, and the matter will be brought back to court on May 24.