The personal cost of surviving a major hazard explosion

As one gets older, the “where are they now?” columns in the newspapers or the summer magazine supplements become more interesting.  The articles of faded pop stars and political one-time wonders are diverting but every so often one makes you stop and think.

OHS is not renowned for “where are they nows?”.  The discipline and the profession has few celebrities but there are important people.  One such person is Jim Ward.  Jim’s story is long and involved but he came to the public’s attention as a survivor of the 1998 gas explosion at the Esso gas plant in Longford Victoria.  The blast, which killed 2 workers, crippled the State’s gas supply for almost 2 weeks.  A Royal Commission was held into the disaster.

Usually a worker’s evidence may be reported on for a day or two in such an investigation but Jim Ward became more than that primarily due to the attempt, according to some, by Esso Australia (a subsidiary of ExxonMobil) to scapegoat Jim.  This attempt was roundly condemned in the Royal Commission.

Pages from AMS_Post_Traumatic_StressIn the Australasian Mine Safety Journal, Jim Ward has written a short personal account of what happened that day but, more importantly, how that day has changed his life.

After the failure of steel exchanger and before the fatal explosion, Ward writes:

“I raced to a doorway and looked out into the gas plant where I saw a thick white fog rolling down the walkway. This white fog was a cloud of vaporised hydrocarbon. Gas – highly flammable gas.

Out of the fog stumbled two zombie-like creatures. Two men – blackened from head to toe. They were covered in soot which had been blown from the inside of the huge steel exchanger when it violently ruptured. They had their arms out in front of them trying to feel their way through the fog, blinking as if trying to catch some daylight to help guide them to safety.

Over the roar of the jet–engine–like sound of gas spewing into the atmosphere I yelled – I yelled at them to get into the control room. Into the control room and to relative safety. Ninety seconds later the gas found a source of ignition and a second, much louder explosion shook the control room building again.

What followed from that moment on was sheer unadulterated terror.”

In his article he goes on to explain the psychological impact of that day and the diagnosis of his post-traumatic stress syndrome.  Ward rightly points out that mental health is poorly understood in the workplace.

Many employers are satisfied if they get through a single day without a problem or complaint but silence is not compliance and there may be mental health issues that require attending to even though they are difficult to identify.

Ward’s article is a timely reminder that the measurement of a successful OHS management system or a more personal “safe system of work” has changed and that business needs to scrutinise OHS auditors on the mental health assessment criteria.

Perhaps, most particularly to Australia, it is necessary to gauge OHS laws through contemporary hazards, such as mental health.  The law will exist for decades and need to be able to adapt to emerging hazards, many of them not coming from the physical.

His article also means that workers need to consider colleagues as more than just colleagues and look to their humanity.  In the past many of us are inclusive and dismissive when we refer to someone as a work mate.  People are more than that.

It may be, as this article is written on 9 November 2009, that Jim Ward’s message has already been learnt by the survivors and emergency workers of the World Trade Center from 2001.  But for many outside the United States it is also two days before Armistice Day, the end of the World War which really brought  shell-shock or combat stress reaction and post traumatic stress disorder to the public mind.

When remembering the fallen in war and work we should also ask “where are they now?”

Kevin Jones

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