More deaths without gas controls warns industry

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More regulation is needed to prevent a recurrence of the Tamahere Icepak tragedy, says a leader in the refrigeration industry.

The week-long icepak fire at night

“We need more regulation to prevent similar tragedies,” says Rob Morgan, chair of the Climate Control Companies Association. “What is in place is little known and insufficient.

“There is licensing for many trades, including plumbers, roofers and electricians; the person who fills up your gas bottle at the petrol station needs to be an approved HSNO filler, but anyone can install flammable refrigerants into a large system. This is not the case in Australia or the UK, for example. In both these countries practitioners must have mandatory qualifications.”

Morgan’s comments came in an article in Industrial Safety News which said a coroner’s inquiry into the death of firefighter Derek Lovell at Tamahere “exposed glaring holes in the regulation around the use and installation of refrigerants.”

The coroner’s report into the death of firefighter Derek Lovell criticises the ‘ambulance at the bottom of cliff approach’ of the current regulation around installation and use Refrigerants. What’s more, the risk of explosive fires around cool stores (and any other businesses using refrigerants, including supermarkets and bottle stores) is likely to increase as synthetic refrigerants, which are non-flammable, are increasingly replaced with highly flammable hydro carbons, to comply with the Emissions Trading Scheme requirements.

The coroner’s report into the tragic death of firefighter Derek Francis Lovell, who died as a result of injuries sustained in the explosion at the Tamahere Icepak Coolstore, has exposed glaring holes in the regulation around the use and installation of refrigerants.

In the report, the coroner Peter Ryan says, “Based on submissions presented to me it is my view that regulatory reform should be proactive in preventing such dangerous conditions occurring in the first place. Whilst there may be benefits in having less prescriptive approach to some areas of industry, it appears axiomatic that there should be clear and definite rules relating to hazardous substances.”

He makes the following recommendations directed at DoL:

  • That consideration is given to whether gas suppliers and refrigeration engineers involved in the installation or handling of hydrocarbon-based refrigerants should be licensed.
  • That consideration is given to implementing and enforcing a licensing and inspectorate regime for installations using hazardous substances posing a significant threat to life or priority.

Whilst there exists a standard around the safe installation of refrigerants, AS/NSZ 1677, (and due to changes brought in under the Electricity (Safety) Regulations 2010, compliance with this standard is now a legislative requirement) there is currently no regulation that specifically governs the competency of the person who installs and removes these flammable substances from the system, nor is there mandatory inspection of the facility and system they are installed in, to check that it is safe and suitable. This means that lack of compliance around the use and installation of these highly flammable substances may well only be picked up when an incident has occurred – in other words, when it is too late.

In the case of the Tamahere Icepak Coolstore, the engineer responsible for installing the highly flammable hydrocarbon, HyChill minus 50, admitted that he was unaware of the provisions of the standard and its applicability to his field. Furthermore, he stated that this lack of awareness was an industry-wide problem.

The two associations representing those working in the refrigeration industry – the Institute of Refrigeration, Heating and Air Conditioning Engineers (IRHACE) and Climate Control Companies Association (CCCA), welcome the coroner’s recommendations as they have been calling for these changes themselves.

Rob Morgan, Chair of the CCCA, says, “We need more regulation to prevent similar tragedies. What is in place is little known and insufficient. There is licensing for many trades, including plumbers, roofers and electricians; the person who fills up your gas bottle at the petrol station needs to be an approved HSNO filler, but anyone can install flammable refrigerants into a large system. This is not the case in Australia or the UK, for example. In both these countries practitioners must have mandatory qualifications.

“IRHACE and CCCA will be working with the Department of Labour (DoL) on an industry Code of Practice covering the design, installation and maintenance of refrigeration systems, but the problem is that this will be voluntary. If companies or individuals choose to ignore it, there is nothing to stop them; and the fact of the a matter is that probably as much as 90 percent of our industry is non-compliant with the HSNO Act and Compressed Gas Regulations, and there is no enforcement regime in place. We may be able to influence our members, but our members only make up around 10 percent of those in our industry.

“The refrigerants we have recently been using are synthetic; some are ozone depleting and some have high global warming potential, but these are not flammable. To encourage less use of those substances that are harmful to the environment, the price of these refrigerants is set to increase quite sharply under the ETS. Some new refrigerants, such as Hychill Minus 50 used in the Tamahere Coolstore, are natural and ozone-friendly, but highly flammable. So, there will be a huge cost incentive to replace the current less hazardous refrigerants with the new, more hazardous but less expensive, ones.

“We could see a scenario where an unlicensed technician coming to do maintenance on a refrigeration system could offer to replace the old refrigerant with a new, cheaper one. This more flammable refrigerant will then be put into a system that is possibly unsuited to it, by someone who may not have knowledge of the standard governing this substance and/or the technical expertise required. Or, a technician may point out that the system is not suitable for hydrocarbon refrigerants, but because of the costs of converting the system, some businesses may choose to install it anyway, and without a mandatory inspection regime, more may take the chance.

“Some progress has been made. The Refrigerant License Trust Board (RLTB) has been granted authorisation by the Commerce Commission for refrigerant suppliers to restrict the sale of refrigerants to purchasers who can demonstrate legal compliance with an approved filler or handler test certificate or a refrigerant license.

“The recent review of the refrigeration trade qualifications means Competenz will be adding the requirement for specific training on the safe use of hydrocarbon refrigerants to the new version of level four, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Qualification.

“But, we do not believe a voluntary (unlegislated) scheme will be successful and safety will not be assured under a voluntary scheme.”

In the coroner’s report, The New Zealand Fire Service (NZFS), in its submissions, largely supports a strengthening of the regulatory framework governing the refrigeration industry, particularly with regard to a licensing regime for gas suppliers and refrigeration engineers involved in the installation or handling of hydrocarbon refrigerants. It also stresses the importance of sustained and effective enforcement.

Looking into the history of the Tamahere Icepak Coolstore the value of a mandatory inspection regime, in terms of preventing an incident, is clear. According to a DoL report ‘advice was given as far back as 2004 and 2006 as to the need to meet the requirements of the Standard AS/NZ 1677:2 (and other Standards). Although IPC (Icepak) installed systems in their Waharoa cool store that provided better management of risks from ignition from Hychill Minus 50, at Tamahere they were still insufficient to meet the requirements of AS/NZS 1677 1998.’

Responding to the question as to whether the DoL thought further regulation was needed, a spokesperson for the Department said “He [coroner Peter Ryan] has issued comprehensive findings and we will study his recommendations.

“The Department told coroner Ryan that it believed the Health and Safety in Employment and HSNO Acts provided sufficient legislative and regulatory coverage of the industry.

“We particularly noted to coroner Ryan that the ‘all practicable steps’ element of the HSE Act as well as relevant Regulations and Standards provided sufficient regulatory strength,” says central division general manager Ona de Rooy.

“We told the coroner that we believed it was more about the industry and operators adhering to the laws and regulations already in place than adding further process to the industry.

“It should also be noted that three parties have been convicted under HSE Act provisions for their roles in this tragedy,” says Ms de Rooy.

The coroner did acknowledge that significant changes had been made since explosion to the regulatory framework, the most significant change being the amendment to the Electricity (Safety) Regulations 2010. But, by and large, the current regulatory framework is retrospective in nature. This was summed up very pertinently by the coroner in his report:

“The effect of the current regulatory framework only comes into play after an event has occurred, such that noncompliance with the regulations may result in a prosecution and sanctions being imposed. This is the classic ‘ambulance at the bottom of cliff’ approach. In my view, it would be better to adopt a ‘fence at the top of the cliff’ approach to this industry because of the potential for harm for persons working in, or visiting such facilities.”

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