In August 2019, a worker suffered burns when fuel vapour ignited causing an explosion. The worker was refuelling a boat, when for reasons yet to be established, fuel vapour ignited causing an explosion.
Investigations are continuing.
Preventing a similar incident
Unleaded petrol gives off vapours which can ignite if not properly managed. Transferring fuel often creates static electricity which can ignite flammable vapours.
The risk of vapours igniting increases when working in a confined area. This often occurs without warning. A person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) must, if there is a possibility of fire or explosion in a hazardous area, ensure the ignition source is not introduced.
A hazardous area is a three-dimensional space in which a hazardous atmosphere exists. In relation to hazardous chemicals, a hazardous atmosphere is one in which a flammable or combustible substance, such as fuel, is present in combination with air or other sources of oxygen and which would ignite if an ignition source was introduced causing a fire or explosion.
When identifying hazards, you should consider all sources of fuel in your workplace that could contribute to fire and explosion risks. Fuels that present the highest risk are those hazardous chemicals that are flammable (for example, flammable liquids, including their vapours and flammable gases). Ignition sources can be any energy source that has the potential to ignite a fuel. They can be categorised into three broad types: flames, sparks and heat.
Risk management must be completed and a safe system of work in place when managing the risk of fire or explosion in a hazardous area. Effective risk management starts with a commitment to health and safety from those who operate and manage the business or undertaking. Managing work health and safety risks is an ongoing process. Risk management involves four steps;
- identify hazards – find out what could cause harm
- assess risks – understand the possible harm, how serious it could be, and the likelihood of it happening
- control risks – implement the most effective control measure that is reasonably practicable in the circumstances
- review control measures to ensure they are working as planned.
Once the risks have been assessed, the next step is to control risks. These control measures are ranked from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest (hierarchy of control). The WHS Regulation 2011 requires PCBUs to work through this hierarchy to choose the control that most effectively eliminates or, where that is not reasonably practicable, minimises the risk in the circumstances.
You must always aim to eliminate a hazard, which is the most effective control. If this is not reasonably practicable, you must minimise the risk by one or a combination of the following:
- Isolation – separating people from the chemicals or hazards either by distance or barriers to prevent or minimise exposure. For example;
- put all passengers ashore and clear of refuelling stations
- fill portable tanks outside the boat
- Engineering – installing systems to detect leaks of flammable gases or vapours, ventilation to avoid creation of hazardous atmosphere, designing plant to relieve and redirect pressure and flame in the event that an explosion occurs. For example;
- never use a latching device (fixed and portable) on a petrol dispenser to prevent static sparks
- only using intrinsically safe electrical equipment in the refuelling zone
- Administrative – if any risk remains, it must be minimised by implementing administrative controls including the development of safe work procedures to prevent the introduction of ignition sources into hazardous areas. Safe work procedures should include instructions on the following tasks;
- maintaining contact between the hose nozzle and fixed pipe to prevent static sparks
- always checking for fuel leaks - possible source of leaks may include hose, fuel line, couplings, etc.
- eliminating ignition sources (e.g. prohibit smoking, turn off pilot lights, isolate power at main switch) prior to starting refuelling operations. Close all hatches and doors etc. to prevent vapours from entering the hull and lying in the bilges.
Also, planned maintenance programmes should be designed and carried out at regular intervals, consistent with manufacturer's instructions or advice provided by other competent persons.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) – In most circumstances, PPE should not be relied on to control risk. It should be used only as a last resort when all other reasonably practicable control measures have been used and the risk has not been eliminated. There may also be situations when the use of other controls is not practicable.
Administrative control measures and PPE rely on human behaviour and supervision, and used on their own, tend to be least effective in minimising risks.
Control measures should be reviewed regularly to ensure they are still working as planned. Common review methods include workplace inspections and consultation with workers. If any issues are identified, revisit the risk management process and then make further decisions about control measures.
From July 2013 to June 2018, there were 93 accepted workers' compensation claims involving hot burns from explosions, contacting hot objects, or a single contact with a chemical. Approximately half (53%) of these claims were serious (involving five or more workdays absent).
From July 2013 to June 2019, OIR was notified of 54 events involving explosions resulting from chemicals or fire. In the same period, 71 statutory notices were issued addressing the risk of hazardous chemicals exploding and causing fire.
Prosecutions and compliance
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.
- Managing risks of hazardous chemicals in the workplace Code of practice 2021 (PDF, 1.24 MB)
- Work Health and Safety Consultation, Co-operation and Co-ordination Code of Practice 2021 (PDF, 0.43 MB)
- WHSQ guidance - Fire and Explosion Risks
- WHSQ guidance - Service stations
- Australia Standard 1940-2004: The storage and handling of flammable and combustible liquids (subscription required)