Orica fined $1.2 million after workers exposed to cobalt dust

Today, Orica Australia Pty Ltd was given a significant penalty by the District Court of NSW with $1.2 million following legal action by SafeWork NSW. The company stood trial after it became apparent that for many years, two employees had been exposed to the perilous impacts of cobalt dust—a potent respiratory sensitising agent attributed to occupational ailments.

Admitting guilt for a supreme Category 1 offence under NSW law as described in the tough section 19 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 offers an insight into the scale of disregard for safety protocols. This unlawful exposure took place at a Kooragang site between 2014 and 2019, leaving one worker grappling with occupational asthma triggered by such neglect.

The ramifications of a Category 1 offence are grave. It comes into effect when one disregards their health and safety responsibilities, engaging in conduct that places others in harm’s way, meaning they face potential death, serious injuries or illness in a thoughtless manner. Specifically, in this extraordinary situation, it encompassed exposure to hazardous cobalt dust via inhalation, skin irritation, and direct contact with eyes, mouth, nose, and skin.

At the industrial chemical manufacturing facility hosted on Kooragang Island, one of Orica’s operations includes creating cobalt catalyst pellets. Both of the affected employees worked in the Cobalt Catalyst Manufacturing Shed where these were produced.

The court identified that during manufacturing activities, cobalt dust and powders were generated—visible but varying amounts depending on each stage of this process, including the condition of respective cobalt catalysts.

Critical impacts of extended cobalt dust exposure range from severe respiratory conditions like occupational asthma, lung fibrosis, and damage through to rare cardiac effects and congestion of vital organs such as kidneys and liver.

Regrettably, Trent Curtin, Head of SafeWork NSW, emphasised, “Orica failed to take adequate measures to protect against this confirmed risk. The evidence showed the precautions that were implemented were unsatisfactory and inadequately executed.”

He added, “This case represents an extreme offence under NSW WHS legislation, sending a straightforward yet stern message to all industries—risking people’s health will not be tolerated and offenders will face full prosecution under the law.”

An important takeaway is the necessity of efficient WHS management systems like Bluesafe SWMS or Bluesafe WHS Management System for preventing such occupational hazards. With comprehensive safety workflows and policies in place, risks can be identified early and managed effectively to provide a safe working environment for all.

Original article link: https://www.safework.nsw.gov.au/news/safework-media-releases/orica-fined-$1.2-million-after-workers-exposed-to-cobalt-dust

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