Energy Australia was aware that safety risks with high voltage circuit breakers at its Yallourn Power Station could cause a “possible fatality” but failed to implement potentially life-saving recommendations before the 2018 workplace death of unit controller Graeme Edwards.
Mr Edwards died after a high-voltage circuit breaker exploded on him at the Yallourn Power Station, severely burning most of his body.
Documents show the company was warned as far back as 2011 that people doing Mr Edwards’ work, which includes monitoring and maintaining the operations of the power station, were at risk of death from “burns resulting from high voltage arc or explosion” while attending to its 6600-volt circuit breakers.
An internal risk assessment prepared in 2011, and revisited months before Mr Edwards’ death in November 2018, recommended better protective clothing for unit controllers and the use of a remote “racking” tool which would have allowed Mr Edwards to perform the task from a safe distance. Both were described as “essential risk control measures”.
But neither recommendation had been acted on at the time of Mr Edwards’ death. A remote racking device was sitting in storage at Yallourn, however, Mr Edwards and his colleagues had not been made aware of it.
One of Mr Edwards’ unit controller colleagues told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that the arc flash exposed Mr Edwards to extreme heat of up to 20,000 degrees celsius.
“His cotton overalls ignited right away. Graeme rolled and tried to put it out, but he couldn’t put it out. The hot gas also got into his lungs … this is the consequence of not having adequate safety gear,” the unit controller said.
The allegations of Energy Australia’s failure to act come as Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions Kerri Judd, SC, is expected to announce whether she will prosecute the company over Mr Edwards’ death. A spokeswoman for Ms Judd said the matter was still under consideration, but a decision on charges was expected before the end of October.
Ms Judd has been left with the job of deciding on a prosecution after WorkSafe last November informed Mr Edwards’ family on the cusp of the second anniversary of his death that it would not be charging Energy Australia.
The decision confounded Mr Edwards’s family and his workmates, particularly as Energy Australia had publicly acknowledged that its own investigation of the incident had found the high voltage area had not been adequately barricaded and that Mr Edwards had done nothing wrong.
“Since the incident at the Yallourn power station, we have … introduced new safety features, including updated equipment and gear.”An Energy Australia statement
Mr Edwards’ mother, Elizabeth Edwards, said her son had worked at Yallourn for more than 30 years and was extremely conscientious about safety. Mr Edwards’ brother, Luke Hopton, said it was “mind-boggling” no one had been held accountable.
Several of Mr Edwards’ high voltage operator colleagues at Yallourn have raised concerns about the adequacy of WorkSafe’s investigation of Mr Edwards’ death, saying none of them were interviewed by the regulator.
Documents seen by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald show WorkSafe inspectors were given copies of the internal risk assessments by a colleague of Mr Edwards a week after his November 2018 death.
At least five of Mr Edwards’ colleagues have written detailed letters to Ms Judd explaining the circumstances of his death, their concerns about the safety culture at Energy Australia and the company’s alleged reluctance to act, and their astonishment at WorkSafe’s failure to prosecute.
The Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union and Mr Edwards’ family have also urged Ms Judd to prosecute Energy Australia. Members of the family met with Workplace Safety Minister Ingrid Stitt and WorkSafe chief executive Colin Radford earlier this year to express their displeasure at the decision not to prosecute.
“There is no argument that Energy Australia failed to provide Graeme with a safe work environment. As a work colleague [who is] fully aware of the circumstances that took Graeme’s life I can only shake my head in disbelief at the recent WorkSafe decision regarding this incident,” one Energy Australia worker wrote to Ms Judd.
Another trio of former Energy Australia unit controllers advised Ms Judd that Mr Edwards would still be alive had the company acted on its own risk assessment recommendations for protective gear and the deployment of the remote tool.
“Either of these measures would have prevented Graeme’s death. No changes were ever made to the station high voltage operating procedures as an outcome of any of these risk assessments, even though the use of these control measures is a common standard throughout similar high voltage installations,” the former workers wrote.
Energy Australia workers have also alerted Ms Judd to other dangerous incidents with the circuit breakers in the lead-up to Mr Edwards’ death and explained how they had regularly asked the company to issue them with special clothing and gloves to better protect them against the “arc-flash” explosions.
“Requests were always denied with words like ‘overkill’ and ‘not required here’ being the common reply even though they are almost standard issue in power stations and similar installations world-wide. It appears that cost was the issue,” the trio of former workers wrote.
A WorkSafe spokesman said a comprehensive investigation was undertaken into Mr Edwards’ death. The decision not to prosecute was made in accordance with WorkSafe’s general prosecution guidelines, he said.
These guidelines require WorkSafe to consider whether there is sufficient evidence to secure a prosecution and whether that prosecution is in the public interest.
“WorkSafe acknowledges the distress this outcome has caused Mr Edwards’ family, friends and workmates and has met with family members to discuss their concerns,” the spokesman said.
Energy Australia said in a statement that the protections it had in place in 2018 had failed to protect Mr Edwards, with the personal protective equipment in use at that time designed to deal with an electric shock hazard, not an arc flash explosion.
The company said it fully cooperated with WorkSafe during its investigation, including by making its people available and providing all requested documentation.
“Since the incident at the Yallourn power station, we have conducted a thorough review of circuit breakers and electrical hazards. We have introduced new safety features, including updated equipment and gear.”
Opposition workplace safety spokesman Nick Wakeling said there had been too many instances of WorkSafe failing to perform its enforcement duties to the standards Victorians expected and called for a comprehensive review of its performance.
Lawyer Bree Knoester from Brave Legal, who has been representing the Edwards family in negotiations with Energy Australia, said knowing that Mr Edwards’ death might have been preventable had made his loss even more devastating for his family and friends.
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