A Tasman Bay engineering operator has been convicted, and ordered to undertake 100 hours community work and pay $12,000 reparation to an employee who was seriously injured, after the fuel tank on a tourist launch exploded during a welding repair.

The owner and operator of L I Engineering, Kent Leppien, pleaded guilty in the Nelson District Court to a charge under the Maritime Transport Act 1994 of causing or permitting a vessel to be serviced or maintained in a manner which caused unnecessary danger to other people or property.  Two employees were injured in the explosion.  In addition there were three crew members on board who were fortunately not injured.

Judge Tony Zohrab said the incident was “entirely Mr Leppien’s fault” and it was by “good luck, rather than good management” that the outcome wasn’t worse.

The Court heard that Mr Leppien failed to provide his staff with adequate training and supervision in relation to the welding work they were sent to undertake.  At the time, the employees had very limited experience with regard to welding fuel tanks. 

Mr Leppien did not accompany them to do the work and told them not to empty the fuel tank.  For previous, more major jobs, the tanks had been drained and cleaned, with the work overseen by Mr Leppien.

Empty tank of fuel

Recommended standards and general advice about working on drums containing flammable substances are that severe explosions may occur when welding. The only way for hot work to be done safely is for the tanks to be emptied of fuel and other flammable substances, and thoroughly cleaned by washing, boiling or steaming.  An additional precaution would be to fill the tank with water, steam or an inert gas.

At the time of the explosion, one man was in the hold welding the hatch while the other was seated in the vessel above acting as “spotter”, with two fire extinguishers at the ready.

When the welder accidentally pierced the fuel tank it exploded and caught fire, knocking him backwards with minor injuries.  The spotter was knocked over and suffered a badly broken ankle which required surgery. The skipper and two crew members were uninjured and helped manage the situation.

Mr Leppien accepted that his employees had not received any formal training in welding, and health and safety measures.

A proper briefing and risk assessment should have been done, and consideration given as to whether a permit for the hot work was required in the circumstances.

Maritime NZ Southern Regional Compliance Manager, Mike Vredenburg, says the outcome is pleasing and shows that the Courts view safety failures, causing risk and danger to others, very seriously.
“This is dangerous work and no one should take short-cuts when flammable substances and confined spaces are involved, as this can put the welfare of employees and others in jeopardy.”
  SOURCE: Maritime New Zealand