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Worker burnt in fuel vapour explosion

A young worker was draining the fuel system of a boat when residual fuel that had collected in the bilge of the boat caught fire. He sustained significant burns to his arm, face, nose and throat requiring hospital treatment.

Initial inquiries indicate the battery was not adequately isolated which may have caused a spark to ignite the fuel in the bottom of the boat. Investigations are continuing.

Just weeks later another worker was burned in an explosion while welding an aluminium boat outboard motor pod. Initial inquiries indicate gas from the welding process accumulated in the pod and an as yet unknown ignition source caused an explosion.

Preventing a similar incident

Flammable liquids, including petrol, ethanol and solvents, give off hazardous vapours which can ignite if not properly managed. Transferring fuel from one container to another can create static electricity which can also cause vapours to ignite.

The risk of these vapours igniting is further increased when working in a confined space, or in a vessel such as the hull of a boat where fuel may accumulate in the bilge, creating a hazardous environment of vapours that may ignite without warning.

These risks must be managed by ensuring that:

  • the work area is well ventilated
  • voids or compartments that may harbour a flammable atmosphere are identified
  • the work area is monitored for flammable gasses or vapours
  • the work area or vessel has been purged of residual fuels or oil
  • all ignition sources have been removed, isolated or controlled
  • any hot work is undertaken by qualified people using a hot work permit system
  • if there is a risk of fire, an observer is in place with appropriate firefighting equipment.

Potential ignition sources may include:

  • naked flames, smoking or pilot lights
  • portable electrical equipment – tools, radios, fans
  • fixed electrical systems – mains power, batteries, lighting
  • hot work – welding, grinding, cutting
  • hot surfaces – exhaust pipes, flues, ducting
  • static electricity
  • sparks generated by mechanical means – hammers, hand tools.

The blast wave, fireball and flying debris produced by such an explosion can cause significant destruction, injury or death.

Statistics

Since 2012, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland has issued 23 improvement and 3 prohibition notices and there have been 168 workers' compensation claims made for incidents involving flammable liquids or gas across all industries. Of these, 14 involved injuries caused by fuel igniting or exploding.

Prosecutions and compliance

In November 2015, a worker was killed when a fuel tank on a boat that he was welding exploded. The explosion also injured the boat owner, but as the worker killed was also the PCBU, a prosecution did not proceed.

In 2015 a company was fined $20,000 after a young worker received burns to 10 per cent of his body while siphoning unwanted petrol from the fuel tank of a boat at a repair shop. The worker used a pump with exposed terminals connected to a 12v battery to pump the fuel into pots, pans and plastic containers. When he disconnected the pump from the battery, the fuel vapour ignited, burning him.

In 2013 a company was fined $125,000 following the death of a worker who was welding on a sealed oil tank. The worker, who was not a qualified boilermaker, was welding a funnel onto the tank which had not been purged of oil or waste fuel products, causing a catastrophic rupture.

More information

How to manage work health and safety risks Code of Practice 2011(PDF, 1018.6 KB)

Fact Sheet: Fire and Explosion Risks

Safety Alert: Explosive conditions

Support for people affected by a serious workplace incident

Have you been affected by a workplace fatality, illness or serious injury? For advice and support, visit our Facebook page or email ohs.coronialliaison@oir.qld.gov.au.

Last updated
07 December 2017

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