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Coolstore lacked safety facilities - inquest

Published: 10:19AM Monday September 05, 2011 Source: ONE News/NZN

An inquest into the death of a firefighter in a coolstore explosion has heard the plant did not have adequate safety facilities and a safety report was ignored.

Senior firefighter Derek Lovell died in the explosion at Icepak Coolstores at Tamahere near Hamilton on April 5, 2008, three years after safety changes had been recommended.

Seven other officers were seriously injured when leaking gas ignited while the team was investigating an automatic fire alarm.
When the first firefighters arrived on the scene they had no way of knowing what was coming next.
"The room was filled with a misty gas or haze," Keith Stewart of the Department of Labour told the inquest in Hamilton. "There was vapour at floor level, simliar to when one opens a freezer."

But it was not vapour. It was highly flammable gas, and in a deadly turn of events, the room's gas detector failed.

"There was no siren activated, no ventilation fan activated," Stewart said.

Lovell and his colleagues were oblivious that just walking into the room may have caused the explosion.

Impact on Tamihere community

The site of the explosion is now mostly cleared, but it remains in the minds of the Tamihere community.

They were so affected by the tragedy, they conducted their own research, finding a safety report issued in 2005 asked for upgrades to be carried out. Those upgrades were never done and it was never followed up.

Community representative Philippa Stevenson told ONE News it is a bit like failing a warrant of fitness and not having your car taken off the road.

The Department of Labour admitted current regulations mean no-one was notified that the report was never chased up.

"There's no process or requirement that would state that should a certificate or interim certificate be expired that someone would have to be informed. That doesn't exist," Stewart said.

The department then came under more pressure at the inquest, with claims no industry changes have been made.

Lovell's family want to ensure some lessons are learnt.

Police decided not to lay criminal charges after the disaster but the Department of Labour successfully prosecuted Icepak, and Mobile Refrigeration Specialists (MRS), which installed the fire alarm unit, under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

There is little dispute over the cause of the fire and the explosion, attributed to a leak of the highly flammable gas Hychill Minus 50, which is 95% propane.

The coolstore contained more than 400kg of the flammable hydrocarbon gas. However, agencies including the Labour Department, Fire Service and Waikato District Council were not aware the gas was being used.

Icepak Coolstores admitted during the court case that it used the gas as a refrigerant without safety compliance, but claimed it did so unwittingly.

The inquest is set down for five days before Coroner Peter Ryan.