SafeWork NSW and the AMWU are both investigating a gas leak at Norske Skog’s Albury plant, following the death of two workers, with a third currently in critical condition.
Lyndon Quinlivan, 37, and Ben Pascall, 28, lost their lives following exposure to what is thought to have been hydrogen sulphide, commonly known as rotten eggs gas due to its odour. Tom Johnson, 22, is still in critical condition, and fighting for his life in hospital three days after breathing the toxic fumes.
In a statement, Johnson’s family says, “Tom remains on life support but he is trending in the right direction,” his family said in a statement released on Monday morning.
“We are hoping for a positive outcome, however we are acutely aware that this is a very rare condition and that things can change very rapidly.
“The level of care Tom has received at Albury Wodonga Health is equal to what he could have received anywhere and we are thankful to the staff here for their exceptional care of our son.
“We have been touched by the unconditional support we have received from our family, friends and community during this awful time and we sincerely thank you.”
The three men had been working on top of a 15 metre high tank checking valves when they were apparently overcome by fumes and went into cardiac arrest. The fumes are thought to have come from the pulp that had been laying unused for three days while annual maintenance was carried out.
A further 15 workers were taken to hospital with one remaining in hospital in stable. The plant evacuated approximately 150 employees after staff were overwhelmed by fumes from the leak, which took place at the end of a three day annual shutdown for maintenance.
The Albury plant produces some 274,000 tonnes of paper a year, around 40 per cent of the total Australian newsprint consumption. It is one of two Norske Skog mills in Australia – the other in Tasmania – and one of seven around the world.
The deadly leak at Albury follows a fire at the same plant a month ago, in which 300 tons of paper were consumed as 50 firefighters struggled to get it under control.
SafeWork NSW says, “SafeWork NSW is investigating after a 28-year-old man and a 35-year-old man suffered fatal injuries in an incident at a paper mill on Henry Drive in Ettamogah on Thursday, 24 May.
“A third man remains in a critical condition at Albury Base Hospital.
“Initial inquiries indicate the men were working in the basement area of the mill when they were overcome by Hydrogen Sulfide gas (H2S) and collapsed.
“Emergency Services responded immediately to the site.
“SafeWork NSW has secured the area of the incident, has formed an investigation team including inspectors with specialist chemical expertise, and will be on site over the coming days to determine the cause of the incident.
“SafeWork NSW will be preparing a Report for the Coroner.”
Steve Murphy, NSW state secretary, AMWU says, “Our primary focus at this time is to support our members and their families. Our Union organisers have been on site and remain available to members.
“We will be working with our union delegates and SafeWork to determine the cause of the incident and will make more comment once the circumstances of this tragedy become clearer.”
It is the second tragic loss of life within the industry at a workplace related incident, both within NSW, in the past six months, with Craig Tanner passing away after being trapped in a mixing vat at DIC’s Auburn site in December.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has made an election promise to introduce industrial manslaughter laws. Under the proposed law, employers who negligently cause the deaths of their workers could face up to 20 years in jail.
The new criminal offence of workplace manslaughter would also allow employers to be fined $16m for industrial deaths.
Quinlivan, a father of two, has been remembered by friends as an amazing man taken too soon from his family.
Local residents have also paid tribute to Pascall, a talented junior swimmer, with one person remembering him as one of the nicest people they had ever met.
Norske Skog was recently bought out by Oceanwood, a London based asset manager.
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