Businesses reminded to ensure employees are protected from chemical exposure

The Department of Labour is reminding businesses to ensure procedures designed to protect staff from exposure to chemical leaks are kept up to date and equipment is regularly checked.

'Failure to do these things can prove costly – both for employers and employees,' says Department of Labour Workplace Services Central Regional Manager Brett Murray.

Mr Murray was speaking after Aotearoa Coolstores Ltd was last week fined $42,000 in the Napier District Court after pleading guilty to one charge (relating to seven employees) of breaching the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. The charge followed an ammonia leak from a compressor at the company's Feilding coolstore on 28 November 2007.

Mr Murray says on that morning an ammonia smell built up in the plant. 'By 11am most staff members were feeling unwell. Some employees were found lying on the floor of the cafeteria suffering breathing difficulties, nausea, and vomiting.'

He says while seven staff were taken by ambulance to hospital, all recovered quickly after treatment and soon returned to work.

However, the workplace had to be closed for the rest of the day because the presence of ammonia represented an ongoing health hazard.

Mr Murray says the incident could easily have been prevented, with an ammonia sensor situated within two metres of the offending compressor not working at the time.

He says the Department of Labour identified a number of practical steps the company could have taken to ensure the safety of its employees.

'It should have had a system to identify all hazards on the site and inform all staff and visitors of those hazards. It should also have ensured that all plant and equipment was inspected regularly and maintained in a safe condition.'

'It should also have listened to complaints from staff and visitors about an ammonia smell and contracted a skilled refrigeration engineer to investigate.'

Mr Murray says the case emphasises that companies need to identify all hazards in their workplaces and then take all practicable steps to eliminate, isolate or minimise them. 'Health and safety can cost money. But the costs of not taking it seriously – including injured workers and lost productivity – can be much more expensive in the long run.'

Reproduced with permission from Department of Labour, from a 14 July 2009 media release on the Department of Labour website, www.dol.govt.nz.

See July Touchstone article about IPENZ releases Coldstore good practice design guidelines. (http://www.standards.co.nz/touchstone/Issue+07/Engineering/IPENZ+releases+Coldstore+good+practice+design+guidelines.htm)

Related New Zealand Standards

Chemicals and safety

Protective clothing

Published in consumer and occupational safety.