On 26 October 2023, a university was sentenced in the Holland Park Magistrates Court for failing to discharge its duty to ensure, so far as was reasonably practicable, that the health and safety of other persons, was not put at risk from work carried out by the university, and that the failure exposed another person to a risk of serious injury or death (a category two offence under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011).
The offending occurred on 6 July 2021. An Honours student at the university was required, as part of his Honours program, to conduct several experiments using a reaction vessel (a piece of laboratory equipment used to apply pressure to chemicals and contain the chemical reactions). The use of the reaction vessel within certain parameters, including those conducted by the student, were hazardous, in that it posed a risk to the health and safety of persons in the immediate vicinity, if the reaction vessel was to fail while under pressure.
On Tuesday 6 July 2021, the student conducted an experiment using the reaction vessel. It was the third such experiment he had conducted. The third experiment had slightly revised parameters, which had been discussed the day prior between the student and his supervisor, but not formally recorded in accordance with the university’s risk assessment process.
The student set up his experiment and placed the reaction vessel in a fume cupboard but did not lower the sash that went over the top of the fume cupboard. Approximately, two hours later, at 2:38pm, the reaction vessel exploded. The explosion destroyed the fume cupboard and heating equipment within the fume cupboard. Shrapnel was propelled around the laboratory (including metal pieces that became embedded in a wall and the ceiling). No one was injured by the explosion.
The university was obliged to manage the risk of death or serious injury from explosive failure of the reaction vessel. The risk assessment process implemented by the university in respect of the experiment achieved the reasonably practicable minimization of the likelihood of reaction vessel failure due to overpressure. However, in circumstances where the possibility of reaction vessel failure had not been eliminated completely, the university failed to ensure that: a blast shield that was compatible with the fume cupboard was provided; the fume cupboard’s sash was closed, and the blast shield was in place, when chemical reactions were in progress and the reaction vessel was unattended; and the university’s safety, health and wellbeing management system prescribed the controls stated above.
Those controls, which would have been directed towards minimising the potential consequences of reaction vessel failure, were reasonably practicable.
The university undertook action after the incident to make the area safe.
The university co-operated during Work Health and Safety Queensland’s ensuing investigation and commissioned an expert to conduct an independent review and prepare a report.
In accordance with the expert’s report, the university implemented various changes. For example: it updated induction material for all reaction vessel laboratories and laboratories with fume cupboards; it amended all of its standard operating procedures and risk assessments for high pressure chemical reactions to reflect the requirement for the isolation of pressurised chemical reactions; it reminded staff of the criticality of risk assessments and that all safety equipment identified in the risk assessment must be purchased and in place before experiments start; and additionally, the university introduced designated high-risk experiments are scheduled and conducted in a segregated space with access control.
At sentence, the Magistrate considered the facts of the matter. The Magistrate also considered the mitigating features relevant to the university, including: the fact that the university had not previously been convicted or prosecuted for an offence under the act, that the university was of good corporate character as evidenced by its multitude of contributions to the community and the university pleaded guilty at an early stage. The Magistrate accepted that the university had in place, at the time of the offending, a comprehensive and robust safety system. The Magistrate considered that the criminality of the offending was low. The Magistrate imposed a fine of $45,000.00. A conviction was not recorded.
The university was also ordered to pay $1,500.00 in professional costs, and $101.40 for the filing fee of the complaint.
OWHSP contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Section 19(2) and 32 - Work Health and Safety Act 2011