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Fridge engineer fined for causing burn injuries

Stock image

AUSTRALIA: A refrigeration engineer has been fined AUS$33,000 (€22,200) for unsafe work practices at an Adelaide restaurant, that caused significant burns to himself and the shop owner.

In September 2019, Angus Roberts (63) was replacing the compressor in the condensing unit of a refrigeration cabinet at the Yummy Fish restaurant in the Adelaide suburb of Salisbury. Recharging the unit, Roberts mistakenly used propane gas to charge the new condenser. After receiving unexpected pressure readings, he realised he had mistakenly used propane to charge the new condenser. While attempting to remove the propane some escaped in gas and liquid form. It ignited and caused a sudden fire. This resulted in second degree burn injuries to Roberts and and extensive burns to restaurant owner Lalo Siyani, who was working close by.

Angus Roberts pleaded guilty in the South Australia Employment Tribunal (SAET) for failing to comply with his duty under section 32 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2012 (SA).

Unmarked cylinders

Investigations by SafeWork SA, the health and safety administration of South Australia, found that Roberts commonly decanted refrigerant for his work into smaller, unmarked cylinders. The decanted chemicals were not properly labelled as legally required, which led to Roberts selecting the incorrect cylinder for the job. He had previously filled some cylinders with propane from a much larger 100kg cylinder. He also used the same cylinders to store non-flammable gas, and for filling with recovered gases he pumped out of condensing units.

Mr Roberts also failed to adequately identify the hazards and manage the risks associated with correcting his mistake. He also failed to implement control measures when working with the hazardous chemicals, including having no exclusion zone in place which could have prevented the shop owner from being harmed.

Angus Roberts pleaded guilty to the charges. The tribunal imposed a fine of AUS$33,000 (€22,200) for the s 32 offence, a fine of $2,000 (€1,350) for the reg 342 offence, a victims of crime levy of $397 (€268) for the s 32 offence and a victim of crime levy of $245 (€165) for the reg 342 offence. He was also ordered to pay $1,133 (€764) towards the prosecutor’s legal costs, and $1,030 (€695) towards the cost of a report from Systems Solution Engineering Pty Ltd. 

Explosion

Describing the work and fire, the Systems Solution report says: 

“Roberts believes the system to be pumped down and proceeds to disconnect the condensing unit from the fridge itself (one ¼” liquid line and one 3/8” suction line). Both lines are a refrigeration flare type compression fitting, connected to post valves that are used to isolate the condenser from the fridge itself. Roberts indicates that he cracks the flare open and initially vapour exits. Roberts is expecting a little vapour, but then liquid comes out and flashes off into vapour (which is not what Roberts was expecting) and in doing so, expands and floods across the floor. The vapour which is heavier than air initially moves across the floor but the build-up allows the gas layer mixing with air to build or expand in volume, as well as be entrained into the exhaust path above the fryer. 

“The explosion (fast burn) is described by Roberts as a “whoosh” and it is apparent that the initial burn then retracts back to the condensing unit where liquid is still escaping and causing secondary burning of plastic components in, on and around the condensing unit.”

It was also noted by the tribunal that had Roberts used appropriate gauges when removing the propane, these would have provided highly relevant information about how much of the propane he had removed before he unsealed the system after wrongly guessing that he had removed most or all of it. There was sufficient propane remaining in the unit that some escaped into the atmosphere in liquid form.

The source of ignition was not established but the pilot light for the cooker was considered the most likely.

Experienced

Angus Roberts had worked as a refrigeration engineer and electrician for 35 years, having been self-employed since 1997.

SafeWork SA executive director, Martyn Campbell said that the case demonstrates that a carefree attitude to dangerous chemicals can cause significant harm. Decanting any chemical or substance into another container and not marking it adequately presents serious risks to any task and makes it extremely risky when selecting the correct substance.

“Mr Roberts had 35 years’ experience as a refrigeration mechanic and electrician, yet he had a fundamental lack of understanding of what is required when handling dangerous substances and the damage that they can cause if they are not handled correctly,” said Martyn Campbell.

The original news report of the incident by 9News can be found here.

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