Longford royal commission: Esso blamed
By Vannessa Hearman
MELBOURNE — The Longford royal commission, which reported on June 28, found that Esso's inadequate training of its employees led to the explosion at the Longford gas plant near Sale in Victoria's La Trobe Valley on September 25.
The explosion killed two men and injured many others. Victoria was deprived of gas supplies for a fortnight. The explosion was caused by a heat exchanger failing after it became brittle due to cold conditions when its lean oil heating system failed.
The commissioners, Sir Daryl Dawson and Brian Brooks, found that Esso had not established a safe workplace, a breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The findings open the way for Esso, already the subject of the largest class action in Australia, to be hit with further lawsuits from insurance companies and individual businesses which suffered losses due to gas supply failure.
The report exonerated the plant workers. It praised their actions in coping with the emergency, evacuating injured workmates and fighting fires as heroic. Esso had tried to blame the disaster on errors by individual workers, rather than acknowledging flaws in their management of the plant.
Dean Mighell, state secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, told Green Left Weekly, "While we're pleased with the end result, which vindicated the Esso workers, the report's weakness is that it doesn't place enough attention on the role of the state government. "We have a lot to learn from Longford, not least of which is that the government must change its policy on occupational health and safety.
"Through Longford, we've seen how ineffective WorkCover has become. The Kennett government has gutted it to the extent that it can no longer prevent accidents of this magnitude."
The commission recommended that Esso upgrade staff training, safety monitoring and risk assessment. It also recommended that an independent "safety case regime" be implemented for major hazard facilities. Operators of such facilities must demonstrate that they have a comprehensive plan to cope with disasters like Longford.
Mighell commented on this self-regulation, "Following Longford, who can trust them with workers' lives?". He said the union planned to use this issue to educate and encourage members to get active around health and safety issues on the job, and to continue to pressure the Kennett government. "We need more inspectors on the job, not self-management by anti-union companies like Esso", he concluded.