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Fines follow young workers' burns in biofuel explosion

Monday 01, Jun 2020

NSCA Foundation's Safe-T-Bulletin, powered by Safety Solutions



Fines follow young workers' burns in biofuel explosion

O2 Motorsports — a South Nowra, NSW motor vehicle repair shop — has been fined $135,000 for breaching the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) after two young workers were injured while making biofuel. The company’s director, Nathan Weissel, was also fined $22,500 following prosecution by SafeWork NSW. The incident occurred on 11 August 2017, when a 19-year-old male worker was tasked with making a batch of biofuel by Weissel, his supervisor. Also on site for his first day of work experience was a 16-year-old schoolboy.

Weissel designed the system himself so he could make biofuel for his personal use. Making biofuel required the worker to pour 200 litres of used cooking oil into a vat and heat it to 60°C using an LPG gas burner. The worker was only supervised for the initial steps, after which Weissel left the premises. It was only the second time the worker had been involved in making biofuel. The worker mixed hazardous chemicals together, including 40 litres of highly flammable methanol with sodium hydroxide. He then asked the 16-year-old work experience student to help carry the bucket of chemicals to the mixing vat.

As the workers poured the chemicals into the vat, it caught on fire, with many ignition sources in the area. The work experience student was thrown backwards and suffered flash burns to his eyes. The worker sustained burns to his legs, hands and face. O2 Motorsports and Weissel pleaded guilty in the NSW District Court to breaches of the WHS Act around failing to comply with health and safety duties. O2 Motorsports and Weissel have the right to lodge an appeal.

Valerie Griswold, SafeWork NSW Executive Director of Investigation and Enforcement, said the case highlights the need for all businesses to ensure they are creating environments where young people are protected. “Young workers across all industries need appropriate training, support and supervision,” Griswold said. “If you employ young workers or work experience students, make sure you understand your obligations to protect them and support their health and safety at work.”

The system of work was inherently dangerous; the person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) had poorly managed the use, storage and handling of hazardous chemicals at the workplace; and there was inadequate supervision, instruction and training provided to vulnerable workers, according to the regulator. “Young workers often struggle with a limited understanding of their rights and can be reluctant to raise concerns about safety — these and other issues specific to young workers are outlined in the SafeWork NSW At Risk Workers Strategy,” Griswold said.

SafeWork NSW has developed initiatives, such as an eToolkit and the Speak Up Save Lives app, to help young workers and their employers break down barriers to reporting unsafe work.

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