An Icepak director told an inquest into the death of a firefighter it was unlikely the company would ever use hydrocarbon gas in the future.
Wayne Grattan made the comment during a coroner’s inquest into Hamilton Senior Station Officer Derek Lovell’s death at Tamahere in April 2008, reports the Waikato Times
In another report questions were raised over whether an ERMA review of LPG gases is misleading the public.
Tamahere resident Philippa Stevenson, who is giving evidence, questioned why Mr McGill, Department health and safety inspector Keith Stewart and ERMA said in a review of the safe use of LPG last year, that the gas would now be odorised.
But Mrs Stevenson said that was not the case and that the change simply meant that odorisation was one of four options, including signage, that had to be in place. Mr McGill said the review strengthened the policies around the odorising of gases. She also questioned Mr McGill, on behalf of Mr Lovell’s family, whether fines under the current Health and Safety Employment Act were sufficient enough.
A fine for a non-employee, including a firefighter, has a maximum of $10,000.
The maximum for employees is $250,000.
Mr McGill declined to comment.
When asked whether Icepak Group Ltd would use a hydrocarbon gas in the future, Mr Grattan answered: “Probably not”.
Hydrocarbons were favoured for their environmental and monetary benefits, and were capable of saving up to 10 per cent in costs.
While both his and other refrigeration companies were currently compliant, Mr Grattan said he was aware of several businesses in the Manawatu-Horowhenua area – “local marae and accommodation centres” – that he believed did not comply with current gas installation regulations.
The use of freon gas was being phased out, and Mr Grattan said it was only a matter of time before hydrocarbons with a flammable element were more widely used.
Mr Grattan said Hychill refrigerant was still available and in use around the country, mainly by supermarkets, which were “big users”, he said.
“Experts are saying there will be high use of flammable refrigerants going forward … at this stage the directive from our insurer is that we’re not to use our [Hychill] refrigerant.”
Icepak Group, which operates coolstores in Whanganui, Otaki, Longburn and Waharoa, currently uses a non-flammable hydrocarbon, carbon dioxide.
The company was also getting a safety audit carried out next year.
Fire Service director of operations and training Paul McGill said the service had strengthened its own procedures since the death.
“There wouldn’t be a firefighter in New Zealand that wouldn’t have knowledge of Tamahere and what happened there.” He said all firefighters would be more cautious.
Meanwhile, an experienced Labour Department inspector is reluctant to back a call for the cold storage industry to be regulated after an explosion that killed one firefighter and seriously injured seven others, the Waikato Times reported.
Tamahere resident Philippa Stevenson questioned why no alarm bells were rung after Icepak was issued a temporary three-month certificate for its pressure equipment in 2005. No other certificate was issued and she suggested that had there been a follow-up, by the department or its agent, it could have alerted authorities to the dangers of the plant.
Mr Stewart accepted that the department had no follow-up procedure but the responsibility lay mainly with the company involved. Chris Gudsell, QC, the lawyer assisting coroner Peter Ryan, said the Institute of Refrigeration, Heating & Air Conditioning Engineers and Institute of Professional Engineers had been appealing for regulation of the industry.
But Mr Stewart said the Health and Safety Employment Act put liability for workplace safety back on to the company and employer.
When pressed further by Mr Ryan, Mr Stewart stopped short of saying he was completely against regulation, but suggested that once hydrocarbons were more in use around the country, it could be looked at.
Mr Stewart said he preferred education and training.
He said there was no way the explosion would have occurred if Icepak had followed current regulations as they wouldn’t have allowed the plant to be built. Icepak’s safety procedures at the site were “inadequate” for use of hydrocarbons.
Neither the NZ Fire Service nor the department was aware that hydrocarbons were being used by Icepak at either of its sites.
Mr Stewart said the hydrocarbon HyChill Minus 50 was first installed at Tamahere, with the approval of directors JJ van Eden and Wayne Grattan, in 2002. More was added to the plant in 2006.
Mr Ryan was told by Mr Stewart that the installation and ongoing maintenance of the plant was carried out by Warren Cook and his company Mobile Refrigeration Specialists which had been employed by Icepak since about 1993. Mr Stewart said the Tamahere plant did not have either a gas detection system or gas ventilation system in place.
“The failure of a gas detection system rendered all other [safety] systems inoperative.” Safety inspections were only ever carried out in plant room two of the Icepak plant. There were never any inspections carried out on plant room one, where the fatal explosion took place.
The flammable hydrocarbon was also being used at Icepak’s Waharoa site and Blueberry Country at Ohaupo before the incident. Both companies swapped back to the non-flammable refrigerant R22 after the blast.
The system installed at Icepak was also prone to leaks, with Mobile Refrigeration billing Icepak 15 times to service leaks and replacing more than 200kg of hydrocarbon gas leading up to the 2008 explosion.
Five months before the fatal explosion, there was a major leak at plant room one of the Icepak coolstore on November 13, 2007.
About 80kg of hydrocarbon leaked and was duly replaced by MRS staff and fixed on December 2, 2007.
On the day of the fatal explosion on April 5, 2008, there was about 402kg of HyChill Minus 50 at the Tamahere site.
Mr Stewart said the interim safety system was also inadequate to monitor such large amounts of hydrocarbon gas. He had checked with Icepak who confirmed that it was unaware the gas did not have a stenching agent and left all monitoring and maintenance to Mr Cook of Mobile Refrigeration.
Earlier in the day, Senior Constable Garry Paton, of Hamilton, said an autopsy showed Mr Lovell died of traumatic injuries suffered in the explosion.
The morning began with Ms Stevenson reading a letter written by Mr Lovell’s mother, Barbara Thorburn.
She said her son was an organ donor and it brought great regret that he was unable to fulfil that wish.
Mrs Thorburn hoped the inquest into her son’s death would help prevent any similar incidents.