Waste management company Cleanaway has been convicted and fined $650,000 over a chemical fire in Adelaide that injured an employee.
Judge Geraldine Davison handed down the penalty in the District Court of South Australia today following an investigation by federal work health and safety regulator Comcare.
Cleanaway Operations Pty Ltd had pleaded guilty to a single charge of failing in its duty to ensure the health and safety of workers under the Commonwealth Work Health and Safety Act.
The fire occurred at the company’s Wingfield Chemical Waste Processing Plant near Port Adelaide on 25 July 2013.
Workers were conducting Cleanaway’s first production-scale trial to distil a new industrial solvent from a chemical mixture when there was a loud explosive rush of air followed by a large 3 metre long flame emanating from the large metal still. A worker standing around five metres away from the still was knocked to the ground by the force of the fire. He was treated in hospital for a wrist sprain.
In sentencing, Judge Davison said that:
Workers had very limited information about the new product in Still 9, such as appropriate temperature controls and hazards associated with its decomposition products. The limited information provided to them was verbal.
At no time during these conversations did Cleanaway provide a work instruction which stated that the temperature for Still #9 was to be maintained at the extraction temperature of approximately 163°C and that it was prohibited and unsafe for the Still #9 to be heated above 220°C.
The cause of the ignition of the decomposition material has not been identified with certainty, however it is likely to have been either a spontaneous combustion caused by the residual heat inside Still #9 or a reaction between iron sulphide (potentially inside Still #9) and oxygen which generates heat.
All the technical information was available but was not provided to those on the ground.
This was a significant departure by a well-resourced company in circumstances where the risks associated with “dropping the still” were well known. There had been a previous incident which heightened the risks.
Her Honour stated that in determining the sentence she took into account the gravity of the offence and considered there to be a high degree of culpability.
A fine of $650,000 was imposed after taking into account the plea of guilty.
The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) prosecuted the matter.
CDPP’s Deputy Director, David Adsett said the result demonstrates that there is significant consequences for businesses that fail in their obligations to workers.
“This is particularly the case for those businesses who neglect to take simple well-known precautions to deal with evident risks of injury. Businesses face hefty fines when charged with breaches that compromise workplace safety,” said Mr Adsett.
CDPP Media contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or 02 6206 5708
Charges and conviction:
Cleanaway was charged with:
- 1 count of failing in its duty to ensure the health and safety of workers under the Commonwealth Work Health and Safety Act 2011
A fine of $650,000 was imposed. The maximum fine is $1.5 million.