CSIRO has avoided prosecution for breaching federal work health and safety laws – which included a charge of failing to protect workers from the risk of death and serious injury – relating to a laboratory explosion at CSIRO Clayton in June 2017 in which a scientist was injured.
Following an investigation by federal regulator Comcare, in 2019 the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) filed four charges in Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, alleging CSIRO failed in its duties under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
However the court action has now been dropped by the CDPP, on the advice of Comcare, after CSIRO settled the case and agreed to enter an ‘enforceable undertaking’ to implement a range of workplace health and safety improvements costing nearly $1.5 million.
According to a Comcare statement, ‘the incident happened at the Clayton laboratory in June 2017 during an experiment that involved sawdust being heated at pressure using hydrogen gas in an autoclave.’
‘Gas leaked from the autoclave and ignited, causing minor injuries to the researcher including cuts, bruises and facial burns. The explosion caused extensive damage to the building, propelling debris more than 20 metres into a garden area.’
‘The worker suffered minor burns and abrasions to his face, a laceration to the forearm which required 15 sutures and bone bruising to his left knee. The worker was hospitalised overnight.’
Following an investigation into the explosion, Comcare found that ‘CSIRO failed to discharge its obligations as a person conducting a business or undertaking under sections 19(1), 19(3) and 32 of the WHS Act in that it did not ensure, so far as was reasonably practicable, that workers engaged by it were not exposed to a risk of death or serious injury in relation to the use of a pressurised autoclave at its premises in Clayton, Victoria.’
If found guilty of the workplace health and safety law breaches, CSIRO faced a maximum penalty of $6 million. Instead, CSIRO will undertake to spend $1.41 million on health and safety improvements, plus Comcare’s costs. This is on top of more than $1.37 million already spent by CSIRO on rectifications within the workplace, not including associated internal resourcing and staffing allocation.
‘CSIRO deeply regrets that the incident on 6 June 2017 occurred and the worker sustained injuries as a result of the incident… CSIRO commits that the behaviour that led to the alleged contravention has ceased and that it will take all reasonably practicable steps to prevent recurrence of this type of incident,’ the enforceable undertaking documents state.
The legally binding undertaking, estimated to cost $1.41 million, includes CSIRO commitments to:
‘CSIRO agrees to disseminate information about the enforceable undertaking within the workplace… including by publication on CSIRO’s Intranet, an internal news bulletin and an all-staff email and will be completed within one month from the date of acceptance of the enforceable undertaking,’ the documents state.
When questioned on the enforceable undertaking at a recent Senate Estimates hearing, while acknowledging the serious nature of the accident, CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall talked up the positive aspects of the proposed industry training package.
“That was a terrible incident involving one of our staff members who could have been really badly hurt working with hydrogen. It’s a really important reminder to all of us that, when you have an organisation that works in every single industry and every single branch of science, the risks can be very wide and very varied.”
“The cornerstone of that enforceable undertaking is an augmented reality safety system that we’re creating in partnership with Comcare to help all organisations do a better job of safety, but particularly ones like ours where we do so many different things,” Dr Marshall said.
Chief Operating Officer Judi Zielke concurred.
“It’s really exciting. Whilst it came out of something that was extremely serious and something we needed to work on, the work that we’re doing at the moment is to create a virtual reality risk management training system… It’s a tool that is not only going to be able to be used by CSIRO but also going to be able to be used by other research agencies or any other employer that might see a need for this purpose.
“We’re quite excited about it because we get to share that more broadly. That being said, I don’t doubt it will have a huge impact on our ability to predict and make sure that we’re managing our risks appropriately,” Ms Zielke said.