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$800,000 fine over workplace burns fatality in Yatala

Yatala based Oil Tech International Pty Ltd was recently fined $800,000 over a workplace incident in which a man was burnt to death.

Operators of a liquid waste treatment facility, Oil Tech pleaded guilty in the Beenleigh District Court to a charge of reckless conduct and breaching its duty of care under Queensland's Work Health and Safety Act 2011. Charges against the director of the company were dropped.

The incident occurred on 5 November 2015 when a tanker load of water and petrol was emptied into a concrete driveway area and a nearby worker, using a heat gun, ignited the fuel. He was engulfed by flames and died.

Queensland Work Health and Safety Prosecutor Aaron Guilfoyle said the hefty fine was a reminder work safety laws were not to be flouted without repercussion.

"This was a category 1 offence involving reckless conduct with tragic consequences," Mr Guilfoyle said. "My office will continue to prosecute those people and businesses who put the safety of their workers at risk. They face the prospect of significant fines and jail time.

"They must be accountable for their actions, particularly when there’s serious injury or loss of life, or even the potential for something tragic to occur."

In this instance, Judge Craig Chowdhury acknowledged it was incumbent upon the defendant to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and safety of its workers, given the high risk of ignition involved with flammable fluids. His Honour accepted general deterrence was an important consideration in imposing the penalty and met the purpose of the legislation to ensure the provision of safe workplaces.

The court heard that at the time of the incident, all liquid storage areas at the facility were full and the site manager directed the tanker waste be deposited onto a concrete driveway. While this occurred, a worker standing on the driveway was using a 240V heat gun when petrol vapour ignited, and he was enveloped in flames and burned to death.

A Workplace Health and Safety Queensland investigation found the driveway did not comply with the Australian standard for storage of flammable liquids. There was no adequate system in place for testing loads of liquid before reception at the facility, and although the defendant had written procedures for receiving and handling flammable goods, workers were generally unaware of them.

Workers received no specific training in the use of heat sources around hazardous materials, beyond an instruction that there was to be no smoking, welding or oxy-cutting at the facility. Staff regularly used heat guns when repairing pumps.

In sentencing, Judge Chowdhury said the risk was obvious and would have been entirely avoided by the defendant refusing to accept the delivery. There were procedures for the receipt of flammable liquids at the facility, which the direction by the site supervisor clearly revoked.

Judge Chowdhury took into consideration remorse tendered by the company director and an early guilty plea. In deciding to record a conviction, he observed that, although the defendant had no previous convictions for work health and safety offences, the circumstances of the offending were serious, and the incident could have been easily prevented.

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