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Tamahere fire inquiry update


15 July 2008

Department issues safety information and Tamahere fire inquiry update

The Department of Labour today issued information on the safe use of flammable hydrocarbon refrigerants and an update on its investigation into the fire at the Icepak coolstore at Tamahere.

A hydrocarbon refrigerant was used at the coolstore, which exploded and caught fire on April 5, killing one fire-fighter and injuring seven others.

Department of Labour regional manager Ona de Rooy said the fire was a traumatic event for everyone involved, and the Department's thoughts were with the victims and their families.

Ms de Rooy said the Department would not comment on the cause of the fire until its investigation was complete. However, she confirmed that a hydrocarbon refrigerant was used at the Icepak coolstore, and that this was an important line of inquiry for the investigation team.

The information gathering stage of the investigation was nearly completed, she said. "This stage has taken time because the investigation is substantial, technically complex and involves a number of parties." These include the Police, NZ Fire Service, Environmental Risk Management Authority, the Waikato District Council, private companies involved in running and maintaining the coolstore, and several insurance companies.

The investigators have been able to draw on the expertise of the Department's hazardous substances advisers and occupational scientists. They have also brought in an external fire investigation expert and have accessed experts to help prepare the safety information on hydrocarbon refrigerants.

"The following stage will be to analyse the information to identify what caused this explosion and fire, and what could have been done to prevent it," Ms de Rooy said. "Because of the complexity of the investigation we cannot put a time frame on when we will complete this stage."

The final part of the investigation will be to decide what response is appropriate. The Department will not speculate on what this might be at this stage.

Meanwhile, the Department has prepared a fact sheet summarising the safety information, and is circulating it to relevant industry groups and associations. It is also working with the Fire Service to ascertain the number of industrial sites using hydrocarbon refrigerants, and the scale of use.

Labour Department Principal Adviser on Workplace Health and Safety Bob Hill said that if hydrocarbon refrigerants escaped from refrigeration and storage systems they could mix with air to form a potentially explosive mixture. "So it is essential to have safe design of plant and control systems, adequate maintenance, and safe operating practices when using hydrocarbon refrigerants."

If coolstore operators have any concerns about the safety of their plant or the application of any of the relevant standards they should consult with a suitably qualified engineer, as well as the Department's new fact sheet.


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