Death on the job: Working in tanks

August, 2007

The tragic death on August 16, 2007, of a 42-year-old Werribee man while working inside a steel tank at a business in McArthur's Rd, Altona North reported in SafetyNet121 spurred Clayton Larkin, who was Victoria's first OHS Rep of the Year, to contact us. As a 19 yr old, Clayton, who at the time was working as an organiser with the NUW, once worked in a place just like the one where the fatality occurred… but he got out. (Clayton has since left the NUW and is now working with WorkSafe Victoria as an Inspector).

At about 18 or 19 years old, Clayton had been working as a casual down at the docks, when he got a permanent job at a company that bought used tanks, cleaned and repaired them and then sold them on or re-used them.

Even though he was very young, he was well aware that there were serious OHS issues at the business and the way he and others were doing their jobs. Tanks would come in, be repaired if necessary, usually involving welding. They would then be cleaned and painted if necessary.

The 'custom and practice' at the workplace was for workers to go into the tanks on their own to clean them. The worker would have to climb up to the top of the tank where the opening was, carrying any equipment he needed and a plank to eventually stand on. Once inside he would place the plank down so he would have a flat surface to stand on, and then clean the muck off the sides. Some tanks would have a 'gummy residue' and he would have to buff the surfaces with a grinder to clean them. Usually he would be given a paper mask to wear. Sometimes he would be given a mask with separate canisters – though more often than not, the discomfort would cause him to not wear it. He would not be told what had previously been stored in the tank, nor what he may be exposed to.

The only openings in the tanks were the hole at the top and a valve hole at the bottom: there was no separate air supply.

In terms of checking on the safety of the workers inside, if someone went past the tank and heard someone inside, he would bang on the side and call out something like, 'Hey, you OK in there?' There were no formal procedures; no-one was even given the job to check on workers inside. It was just ad hoc.

A couple of times Clayton refused to go into a tank – mainly because of the bad odours. But generally the workers were expected to get in there and get on with the job.

Clayton quit his job after he luckily escaped serious injury when he was splashed in the face with the extremely caustic liquid they used to wash down the outside of the tanks. Even though he was wearing a facemask, the liquid got behind it. After being sent to doctor and spending one day at home, he decided he wasn't going back. It was only about two months after he got the job.

Some time after he left, he heard from ex-work colleagues that the company had installed a washing station, which meant that for the cleaner tanks at least, robots did the cleaning. But to clean the tanks with the built up residues, workers were still required to work inside the tanks to buffer them.

The extent of the 'training' provided to the workers was simply to shown how it was done. They were not provided with any information regarding the substances they were using, nor the cocktail of hazardous substances they were being exposed to. They had no idea of the laws with regard to confined spaces. Clayton took what was a difficult decision at the time: to quit. And he's alive now to tell the story. He told SafetyNet that he's heard that some of the guys he worked with then, in 1993, now have cancer…. And the worker who died on August 17 was probably doing what Clayton had done then too….

Workers have a right to come home after work. They have a right to expect that what they are being told to do at work will not kill them. Employers have duties under the OHS Act and the regulations to identify and control hazards, and have specific duties in relation to confined spaces and hazardous substances (toxic chemicals and products).

Unfortunately too many employers don't comply with the law. For this reason it is crucial for workers to have elected health and safety representatives. OHS Reps attend training so that they understand the law, and understand their powers under the Act, which give then the right to make the employer take notice and address the hazards at work.

That's a better alternative than quitting a job… or even worse, being seriously injured or losing your life.

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