An Australian coatings maker has been convicted of two safety violations and lost its $2.4 million plant in an explosion that burned an employee—but, in the end, it could have been worse.
Astec Paints, of Adelaide, South Australia, will stay in business after an Australian Industrial Relations Court gave the company a significant break on fines it had faced in a 2007 explosion and blaze that leveled the facility.
|Firefighters battle a blaze that leveled the Astec Paints plant in 2007.|
On Thursday (March 22), the court acceded to the company’s pleas for leniency and fined it just 46,236.25—a fraction of the maximum $300,000 fine it faced—in the case.
The company had contended that a massive fine over its first major accident could have put it out of business.
Static and Chemicals
The fire began when a static electricity charge ignited paint chemicals—toluene, xylene and deglan—that employee James Pyman had been decanting with a pneumatic pump from a 2,000-liter mixing tank into 20-liter metal containers.
The cause was later traced to a static charge, but the precise origin and mechanism of the ignition could not be determined.
The facility lacked standard remote shutdowns for pumps and valves in the mixing tank and decanting equipment, and Pyman said he was unable to shut down the equipment because of the flames. With the pump still operating, the blaze quickly became a fireball.
Pyman was burned on his face and hand, but none of the 13 other employees on site was injured. The factory burned to the ground.
The company, a leading exporter of paints and coatings, was later charged with two violations of Australia’s Dangerous Substances Act. One count involved general failure to appropriately handle dangerous substances; the other cited the company’s lack of a license for chemicals it was using.
|Founded in 1978, Astec is a leading exporter of paints and coatings. The company’s portfolio includes products for concrete repair and protection. |
The company eventually pleaded guilty to both counts. The plant manager said he had not known that a license was required.
In its ruling this week, the court cited several reasons for its relative leniency in imposing fines on the paint company.
• Although one expert said that such an accident had been “likely to happen” under the circumstances, the company had operated since 1978 without such an incident. “This shows in a tangible way just how likely the event really was,” the court wrote.
• The company’s guilty plea saved the courts time and money and “reflects genuine regret and contrition… .”
• The exact circumstances of the fire remain in dispute, although the company agreed that it had not taken “all reasonable steps” to prevent the accident.
• There were some “imperfect” devices in place capable of cutting off power to the equipment, although employees were apparently unaware of that.
• The company was financially devastated by the fire and has expended “enormous effort” to stay in business. No deterrent in the form of higher fines was needed, the court said.
New Safety Features
The court also noted that the company has since rebuilt, incorporating new safety features that “go well beyond the requirements of the relevant Australian Standard. These features should be made known to the industry at large.”
Among the improvements: a timer and shutoff on the mixing tank. Investigators found that the paint had been mixed longer than usual on the day of the fire and that the mixing operation may have been left unattended—both factors that may have contributed to the blaze.
The court also noted that the toluene used that day “may have had a particularly low level of electrical conductivity.” The company has found a supplier who uses an additive to increase conductivity. That additive will be used in all of Astec’s solvent-based products, the court said.