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Hefty fine over toxic gas incident

Media Release

26 March 2014

Hefty fine and reparations order after toxic gas leaves workers unconscious

Whanganui company Tasman Tanning has today been fined $73,000 and ordered to pay reparations totalling $90,000 over a toxic gas incident that left four of its workers unconscious.

Workers at Tasman Tanning’s Tod Street tannery were exposed to hydrogen sulphide gas in November 2012 after two chemicals used in the leather making process, sulphuric acid and hydrosulphide, were mixed. Exposure to hydrogen sulphide can cause nausea, headaches, memory loss, unconsciousness, convulsions and death.

The gas knocked out two workers, Joseph Ratana and Warren Burgess, on the mezzanine floor of the tannery. A third man, Taniela Balivou, fell unconscious when he attempted to go to their aid and another worker involved in rescue efforts also passed out briefly.

The tannery was evacuated. The unconscious men were eventually pulled from the building by co-workers, who found two breathing masks that enabled them to make it up to the mezzanine.

Mr Ratana and Mr Burgess were hospitalised and placed into medically induced comas as part of their treatment. The pair suffered short-term memory loss and temporary loss of sight. Mr Balivou regained consciousness outside the tannery.

Tasman Tanning pleaded guilty in the Whanganui District Court to one charge under the Health and Safety in Employment Act of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its workers.

WorkSafe’s General Manager of Investigations, Brett Murray, said Tasman Tanning could have taken a number of steps to avoid such an incident, including issuing employees with personal gas detectors which would have warned them about the high hydrogen sulphide levels.

“Workers at Tasman Tanning were also not given adequate training to respond to such an emergency. There was no proper safe operating procedure in place and workers did not ensure their own safety before going to the aid of Mr Ratana and Mr Burgess. This resulted in serious harm to some of those employees.

“The company could also have had separate chemical storage tanks for each vessel used in the tanning process. Shared storage tanks meant that substances intended for one vessel could mistakenly be transferred to the wrong vessel. The remote location of the holding tank control panel also added to the possibility of an error.

“This was an extremely serious incident. Today’s fine is a powerful reminder to all involved in the use of hazardous chemicals of the importance of proper planning and procedures, good training and the appropriate handling and storage of chemicals,” said Brett Murray.

[Ends]

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