Energy company fined after workers exposed to acid vapours
Energy company Viva Energy Refining Pty Ltd 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. The company pleaded guilty to two charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and was fined $100,000 for failing to provide and maintain a safe system of work requiring employees to wear appropriate personal protective 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.
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 that 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 since September 2017. The 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. To control the risks associated with hazardous chemicals in the workplace, employers are advised to treat all chemicals as potentially dangerous to health, unless the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) or label states otherwise. Employers should obtain SDSs for all dangerous goods and hazardous chemicals at their workplace and ensure workers have access to them.
To further control the risks, employers should consider eliminating the substance from use; where this is not possible, employers should consider the use of a less harmful product or process, or a less hazardous form of the substance. WorkSafe also advises employers to check and ensure containers of chemicals in systems/pipework are adequately labelled or identified. The workplace and work systems should also be designed to isolate the process or substance from workers to prevent contact. Workers should also be trained on safe work practices that reduce exposure, with control measures properly installed (if applicable), used and maintained. Employers must also provide adequate personal protective clothing and equipment for workers, and consult with workers and any health and safety representatives (HSRs) about measures in the workplace to control health and safety risks.
WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety Narelle Beer said hydrofluoric acid is highly corrosive, with potential to cause severe bone damage, burns, skin and deep tissue ulceration, heart failure and death.
“Employers working with hazardous chemicals must do everything practical to ensure that workers’ safety is their highest priority. 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. WorkSafe won't hesitate to prosecute duty holders who fail to provide and maintain a safe workplace,” Beer said.
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