Fine over chemical explosion

Public news

Two businesses and a director have been fined a total of $630,000, after their operation's "wholly deficient" chemical safety systems led to a worker using a vacuum to clean up flammable liquids, which exploded.

In sentencing JPS Car Wash Management Pty Ltd, SRS Star Management Pty Ltd and SRS's sole director Sarjeet Sidhu, NSW District Court Judge, Wendy Strathdee criticised their attempt to "foist blame" on the injured worker to diminish the objective gravity of their offending.

The three parties operated a Star Car Wash franchise in an Ashfield shopping centre.

Their attempt to blame the worker was not supported by any evidence and showed they had "no real acceptance of their [WHS] failures", the Judge found.

Their unsubstantiated views were repeated by a representative of Star Car Wash's head office who testified, she added.

"The Star Car Wash group employs about 500 people in NSW, and a message must be sent to these defendants, and any others that engage in these activities, that their disregard for the safety of employees will not be tolerated," the Judge said.

In April 2018, the worker was using a wet-and-dry vacuum to clean up spilled tyre cleaner in the car wash's staff area and storeroom when an explosion occurred and the room was engulfed in flames.

The worker's clothes caught fire and he crawled out of the room. His supervisor and a customer extinguished the flames and then removed his clothes and shoes, which were melting onto this skin.

The worker, who was only 18 at the time, suffered partial and full thickness burns to 35 percent of his body, including his face, limbs, back and buttocks.

SRS and JPS, which SRS engaged to conduct the car wash's day-to-day operations, pleaded guilty to breaching sections 19 and 32 of the State WHS Act. Sidhu pleaded guilty to breaching section 27 in failing to exercise due diligence to ensure SRS complied with its safety duties.

Judge Strathdee found seven chemicals were kept in the storeroom. Some substances were not in their original containers, including the tyre cleaner, which had been decanted into a plain white can without hazard or warning labels attached, she found.

The car wash did not have up-to-date safety data sheets for the chemicals it used or keep a chemical register, the Judge found.

The injured worker, who had few to no English language skills, was not trained on how to safely use the tyre cleaner or told it could catch fire or explode. He was not trained on how to clean up chemical spills and was "unfamiliar with the term 'SDS' or 'safety data sheet'", she found.

JPS, SRS and Sidhu asserted that they could not have foreseen the worker would use the vacuum, whose manual said it should never be used on or near flammable liquids, vapours or combustible dusts, or to clean up spilt chemicals.

The vacuum had never been used for this purpose, and the worker was directed to use cloths to clean up any spills, but failed to do so, they claimed.

Judge Strathdee said this attempt to place responsibility for the incident on the vulnerable worker must be rejected on the evidence.

"Star Car Wash did not know prior to the incident that the [tyre cleaner] could ignite if vacuumed, make any risk assessment to the use of the vacuum in and about hazardous materials, gave no consideration to the storage and use of hazardous chemicals, conduct any safety audits or require the installation of a fire extinguisher," she found.

Judge Strathdee found appropriate fines for JPS and SRS were $400,000 each, and $40,000 for Sidhu. She then reduced these by 25 per cent to total of $630,000 (plus $40,000 in costs) for their guilty pleas.

If members need assistance with chemical hazards and risk assessment, please contact the WR team on wr@mtasant.com.au, or on 8291 2000, or attend one of our WHS training sessions.