The advantages of integrated enforcement action

In the 1990s, WorkSafe Victoria (then the Occupational health and  Safety Authority) coordinated Hazardous Chemicals Audit Teams (HCAT).  I was one member of the administrative unit for HCAT.  This coordinated approach to inspection and enforcement had substantial merit and was very effective as the Auditor-General found in 1995.  I was reminded of this initiative by the simultaneous action taken by the Victorian Government against Mobil Australia, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, on 3 June 2010.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has

“…cancelled Mobil Refining Australia Pty Ltd’s accredited licence”.

The EPA media release quotes CEO John Merritt (formerly executive director of WorkSafe Victoria):

“In the absence of [an ongoing commitment to constantly improving their environmental performance], EPA has the power to cancel the accreditation…. EPA is less than impressed with Mobil’s track record in which there has been a number of incidents at the site all with the potential for environmental and community risk.

It is EPA’s belief that Mobil’s onsite practices have not demonstrated a high level of environmental performance to justify accreditation.”

According to one media report, and echoed internationally, the decision will increase Mobil’s annual licence fee by $A27,000 and mean that minor work on-site cannot be undertaken without a works approval.

This would seem like a slap on the wrist to a multinational organisation but the presence and activities of Mobil in Melbourne’s western suburbs has been controversial in some sectors for some time.

The EPA action is significant on a local level in Melbourne but the issue of Mobil Australia’s activities is heightened by simultaneous action by WorkSafe Victoria.  A media release states that WorkSafe has imposed new licence conditions on this major hazard facility because it is under performing in comparison to other similar facilities.

Acting Executive Director for Health and Safety Stan Krpan, who has been keeping the seat warm since John Merritt’s departure, is quoted:

“The objective of imposing licence conditions is to prompt Mobil to identify any shortcomings in their safety inspection and maintenance systems, and rectify them before incidents have a chance to occur…”

Mobil will be obliged to

  • “Analyse past incidents to identify the causes, and address causes through improvements to safety inspection and maintenance systems
  • Demonstrate that these improvements mean the risk of incidents (such as leaks or spillage) is significantly reduced.”

The implication here is that Mobil has not been performing these management functions to the satisfaction of WorkSafe, an important deficiency in a global petroleum company.

Coordination of environmental and OHS obligations has always seemed to be good approach, particularly to major hazards, and whether the current actions by WorkSafe or EPA are coordinated or coincidence they will benefit the local community.

As a nostalgic postscript, it is noted that the activities of HCAT in the 1990s had a positive effect although it was often difficult to coordinate over half a dozen regulatory agencies to turn up at a single site at the same time.  The Auditor-General’s Special Report in 1995 said

“The Hazardous Chemicals Audit Team established in July 1990 comprised members of a range of Local Government and Victorian Government agencies involved in the regulation of hazardous chemicals.  Over a period of around 2 years, the Team completed approximately 1 200 inspections and made 12 000 recommendations to various companies, mainly addressing non-compliance with dangerous goods regulations and local government building requirements.

An analysis of 450 of the Team’s inspection files by the Hazardous Chemicals Secretariat was undertaken to obtain a general indication of the degree of compliance within the industry at that time.  The analysis disclosed high levels of non-compliance, particularly in the following areas:

  • inadequate emergency access and egress (72 per cent);
  • inadequate bunding, for spill control (64 per cent);
  • unsafe chemical segregation (52 per cent);
  • unlawful chemical discharge to the environment (50 per cent);
  • inadequate signs (44 per cent);
  • failure to provide protective equipment (39 per cent);
  • failure to assess the chemical hazards at the premises (39 per cent);
  • failure to obtain appropriate building permits from local government authorities (30 per cent); and
  • unsuitable location of chemicals (28 per cent).”

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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