Lessons of the Longford gas explosion

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Lessons of the Longford gas explosion

By Vannessa Hearman

MELBOURNE — At the end of April, final submissions were presented to the royal commission into the gas explosion and fire at Esso's Longford facility in the Latrobe Valley. The Victorian Trades Hall Council has called on the state government to toughen its stance on occupational health and safety in the light of the evidence presented to the commission.

On community radio 3CR's Stick Together Show broadcast on April 30, VTHC secretary Leigh Hubbard told Meredith Butler that Esso is guilty of a "gross negligence" in its operations, and in its health and safety and management culture: "For example, [Esso management] did not implement the emergency response agreement with the Country Fire Authority."

Hubbard also strongly criticised the state government's failure to implement a safety regime for major hazard facilities like the Esso gas plant. "Some of the problems should have been picked up. The valve that went seriously wrong — everyone knew it was malfunctioning — was not taken out of the system and overhauled. Instead, Esso said it would just look at it again in 2005."

Hubbard pointed out that if inspectors had visited the site regularly, instead of plant managers being relied on, the fact that staff were not being trained to deal with catastrophic events would have been quickly apparent.

Andrew Hopkins, who also conducted an in-depth study of the 1986 Moura mine disaster in Queensland, also gave evidence to the commission. Hubbard said Hopkins' evidence was important because "he talked about management culture ... at Esso Longford you see boards up stating how many days it has been since a 'lost time injury' ... It is all focused on things that workers do, for example if they slip over, not on production-based major catastrophic events" which are the responsibility of management.

There were many similarities between the safety regimes at Moura and Longford, Hubbard noted. "It was eerie reading [Hopkins'] book on the Moura mine disaster because you could almost substitute the words 'Esso Longford' for 'BHP Moura'. The same string of system failures which happened there happened at Longford."

On the Victorian WorkCover Authority's plan to introduce in the next two years a new system to regulate major hazardous industries, Hubbard said that while VTHC is pleased that the government is finally implementing the national standard, "we have to wait to see the results because often the devil is in the detail. There are things we won't compromise on.

"First, an operator of a major hazard facility must lodge a safety case with the [government] regulator outlining how it will cope if something goes wrong. Second, the safety case must be approved by the regulator, not simply received."

Hubbard insisted that the safety case should be the lynch-pin of the licensing system, and that there should be an audit of the safety procedures and mechanisms by independent third parties. He added that the regulator must be given specific powers, backed by legislation, to deal with major hazard facilities, instead of being merely an administrative unit.

The Stick Together Show can be heard in: Melbourne on 3CR, Fridays, 8.30am (repeated Mondays, 6am); Gippsland on 3GCR, Thursdays, 11.30am; Canberra on 2XX, Tuesdays, 6pm; Katoomba on 2BLU, Wednesdays, 5.30pm; Omeo on 3HCR, Tuesdays, 6pm; Adelaide on 5UV, Wednesdays, 2pm; Sydney on 2SER, Wednesdays, 8pm; Brisbane on 4ZZZ, Tuesdays, 1.30pm; Perth on 6RTR and Alice Springs on 8CCC (contact these stations for transmission times).