"Catalogue of errors" causes blast

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Labour Department lawyer Shona Carr has outlined a catalogue of errors and inaction she said contributed to the fatal April 5, 2008 Icepak Coolstores explosion.

On the day of the blaze, Ms Carr said Icepak Coolstores director Iain Slight had two opportunities to warn firefighters that a highly flammable substance was being used at the site. Such a warning could have changed the events of the day, she said in the Hamilton District Court.

However, ultimate responsibility for the tragic explosion lay with Mobile Refrigeration Specialists, said Ms Carr reported the Waikato Times.

The company’s culpability in the accident was “extremely high”.

The comments from Ms Carr came at yesterday’s sentencing at the Hamilton District Court of Icepak Coolstores, its managing director Wayne Grattan and the refrigeration company, Mobile Refrigeration Specialists.

Icepak Coolstores earlier pleaded guilty to three charges of breaching health and safety employment regulations, while Grattan pleaded guilty to one of the same charge over the April 5, 2008 explosion which killed Hamilton firefighter Derek Lovell and seriously injured seven other firemen.

Mobile Refrigeration Specialists pleaded guilty to two charges of breaching health and safety employment regulations.

The Tauranga-based company was contracted by Icepak Coolstores to design, install and monitor the propane-based refrigeration system at the site.

“(Mobile Refrigeration Specialists) created a bomb without any regard whatsoever to the health and safety of its employees, employees of Icepak Coolstores Limited, and any other people who went to the site or were in the vicinity of the site such as members of the New Zealand Fire Service,” Ms Carr said.

“It was highly foreseeable that at sometime the coolstore complex would explode.”

Hydrocarbon-based refrigerate was introduced at the site in September 2002.

Icepak Coolstores knew it was embarking on “an experiment” which had never been undertaken before, adapting an industrial operation to be run on a highly flammable, explosive substance.

Its directors also ignored a number of “red flags” which should have alerted them to the risks at the site.

These included the fact propane gas was leaking on a regular basis, the site’s gas detectors needed replacing, and “sources of ignition”, such as switchboards and forklifts, were all over the site.

In November 2007, 80kg of propane gas leaked at the site, just five months before the coolstore explosion.

Grattan was also aware the hydrocarbon-based refrigerant was flammable and had sufficient knowledge the coolstore plant was potentially dangerous.

Ms Carr said Grattan’s prosecution should act as a reminder to all individuals with health and safety responsibilities “they can’t hide behind the corporate veil”.

However, she acknowledged Icepak Coolstores did rely on the expertise of Mobile Refrigeration Specialists.

Potential warning signs were blatantly and deliberately ignored by the refrigeration company which showed a reckless and callous approach to health and safety requirements, she said.

“This defendant fell so far short of industry standards that it shouldn’t have built the plant at all.”

Asked by Judge Robert Spear if the company was incompetent, Ms Carr replied: “it was wallowing around in a bucket of ignorance”.

In submissions for Icepak Coolstores, defence counsel Simon Menzies said the coolstore explosion and blaze had destroyed the company physically, and economically.

Mr Menzies submitted Icepak Coolstores was proactive in its approach to its health and safety requirements but was hampered by inaccurate advice from Mobile Refrigeration Specialists.

Icepak Coolstores had little knowledge or awareness of the specific hazards of propane gas but was advised it was widely used in Australia.

While the company knew the gas was flammable, it didn’t know it was explosive, he said.

Mr Menzies said the company believed adequate operational and safety systems were in place to ensure the plant met the necessary requirements.

It was now clear some of the expert advice and systems installed were flawed and this was the subject of civil litigation, he said.

Mr Menzies said the company acknowledged the tragic consequences of the fire and was itself devastated by the explosion, with 80 per cent of the coolstore destroyed.

The company had surrendered its consents at the site and was unlikely to continue business elsewhere in the near future. Icepak Coolstores was now insolvent.

In court today, Grattan read a statement acknowledging that his and his company’s actions had caused the tragedy but said they had thought they had been doing the right thing and had been proud of the company. His apology to the assembled firemen and their families including Milli Lovell, wife of Derek Lovell, brought tears to Mrs Lovell’s eyes.

Mobile Refrigeration Specialists lawyer Marc Corlett rejected Labour Department submissions that the company had embarked on an experiment or that his client had reckless disregard for health and safety.

UPDATE: Judge Robert Spear gave his judgment today (December 15). Click here for the judgment.

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