Poor safety standards led to workers death
29 November 2004
The death of a farm manager who climbed into an effluent tank to fix a leak, and was overcome by deadly hydrogen sulphide gas, could have been prevented had his employer extended its health and safety system to include farm workers.
In a reserved judgement, Ferrier Woolscours (Canterbury) Limited was today fined $15,000 and ordered to pay reparation totalling $25,000 to the family of employee John Rogers, 54, who was killed at their Winchester, South Canterbury, factory in April 2003.
Ferrier Woolscours was also ordered to pay a further $2500 in reparation to Mr Rogers's colleague, farm labourer Andrew Anderson, who was seriously injured when he entered the tank in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue Mr Rogers. Mr Anderson spent several days on life support after his gas exposure.
On the day of the accident, the two men had noticed a leak in an effluent tanker, used to spray treated effluent - a by-product of the wool scouring process - on farmland. After emptying the tanker, they unbolted one of the tanker's manhole covers and Mr Rogers climbed in.
A few minutes later, Mr Anderson discovered his colleague had collapsed and was lying face down at the bottom of the tank. He climbed in to help but was also overcome and collapsed. Five hours later, a local farmer found Mr Anderson propped up against the side of the tanker, and shortly afterward, Mr Rogers' body was discovered in the bottom of the tanker.
The Department of Labour's occupational safety and health service investigated and found that the root cause of the accident was the lack of safe working, repair and emergency procedures, because Ferrier Woolscours had not adequately identified all its workplace hazards.
OSH Canterbury service manager Margaret Radford said the company had failed to identify a number of confined spaces, such as the effluent tanker, as hazards, because it mistakenly assumed no one would try to work inside them. 'But no one had told the two workers, who just wanted to fix the leaking tanker and get on with their jobs.'
Ms Radford said work in uncontrolled confined spaces killed several people every year in New Zealand. 'Confined spaces are potentially dangerous places to work, and employers must ensure that everyone working in them is properly trained, that they follow specific procedures to remain safe, and that emergency plans are in place.
'In this instance, it was only a matter of luck that both men didn't die. Unfortunately it's all too common for rescuers to be harmed, as the natural reaction is to try to help your mate without realising that you're exposing yourself to exactly the same hazard.'
In his reserved judgement, Judge Abbott said hydrogen sulphide gas was more toxic than cyanide, and exposure to high levels could kill instantly. Judge Abbott said it was patently self-evident that, had Mr Rogers been aware of the very real dangers being exposed to high levels of hydrogen sulphide gas, he would not have climbed inside the tanker.
'The tragedy of this accident that claimed Mr Rogers' life was that was entirely preventable, had his employers taken the time think about making his workplace safe,' Ms Radford said.