A Gas fire at the ageing Australian Char plant in Morwell on Easter Saturday has brought the operation to a standstill, sparking safety concerns from within the beleaguered workplace.
An industrial fan bearing along a gas duct exploded two days after vibrations and overheating within the unit were allegedly reported to management, sparking a fire which took employees more than four hours to extinguish.
Built in 1969, the char production plant has recently become unprofitable, and is due for decommissioning at the end of the financial year.
According to an Auschar worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardise an ongoing redundancy program at the site, said the incident raised serious concerns about operational decisions being made during the plant’s final months.
“This incident was completely avoidable. Under normal circumstances they would have repaired that fan as soon as it was reported, but their response was just, ‘let’s keep going and we’ll monitor the plant’,” the worker said.
While Auschar managing director Nicole Brook confirmed a fan failure and gas fire had taken place over the Easter weekend, she declined to confirm or deny the employee’s account.
“It was a plant operational issue which was managed in accordance with procedures, and there were no injuries,” Ms Brook said.
However, the worker said with the fan bearing shattering within 10 metres of a plant’s control room, sending ball bearings and shrapnel throughout the immediate area, “it’s a miracle no one was hurt”.
The worker said the explosion ruptured gas ducting, sending fumes throughout the plant, creating flames which “leapt about six metres in the air” and sparked sightings of gas haze from the adjacent Monash Way.
“There was that much gas the workers couldn’t see where they were going while they were trying to perform the emergency procedure, and were having trouble going on about their tasks,” he said.
With only four employees on site, a further two were called in to respond to the incident, however the worker said he was “shocked” to learn fire authorities were not called in to combat the blaze.
Ms Brook justified Auschar’s decision not to call the CFA by stating the employees “had it under control”.
It is unclear wether WorkSafe are aware of the incident.
“Auschar usually have a strong culture of OH&S, but just recently, since we’ve been talking about restructure within the company, they said to us safety wouldn’t change, but it seems the opposite has been creeping in,” the worker said.
“The operational side of the plant has been really under-performing over the last three to four weeks – under normal circumstances we would’ve been offline a month ago for a full clean and reparation before bringing it back online.
“Instead, the plant has been barely performing at all – the output has been right down to as low it can go, and they have been shutting down briefly just to allow temperatures to go down.”
Australian Workers Union Gippsland organiser Sam Beechey, who has been in conversation with Auschar management during the redundancy program, said he was surprised by the worker’s account when phoned by The Express.
“I have spoken to management once since Easter Saturday, and all they told me was ‘by the way, we had a bit of an incident on Saturday, the plant is down’,” Mr Beechey said.
With production ‘banked’ as a result of the fire, Ms Brook said the plant had since remained shut for cleaning and other repairs, for temporary re-commissioning before the cessation of a briquette supply contract at the end of the financial year.