Recent conviction highlights fatal risks for workers inside confined spaces
Implications and inferences on workplace safety under capitalism
Pictured: The factory and tank in which apprentice Dillon Wu died
Owen Hsieh & Oskar B., August 2022
Marshall Lethlean Industries, a manufacturer and supplier of liquid and dry bulk road tankers was finally convicted and fined for a death that occurred in 2018 at its Cranebourne West workshop in Victoria. The details of incident revealed within the sentencing remarks1 are extremely sickening and disturbing. They raise a number of red flags detailing how a series of safety critical steps in the process were gratuitously ignored by management, which reveal conclusively that the death was a completely avoidable incident.
Dillon Wu was a 20 year old apprentice and trainee welder hired through labour hire subcontracting, commencing workplace placement on the 24th September 2018, he died on the 4th of October 2018, less than two weeks later, after he was put to work inside a confined space with neither sufficient training, adequate supervision, proper processes or the correct equipment.
On the day of the incident Wu was carelessly ‘handballed’ the job of cleaning out the tanker at the morning pre start. The job involves cutting off brackets and sanding down edges inside the vessel, during the task if the wall is accidentally ‘nicked’ by the grinder, a welder is used to patch it up. Two large welders were left inside the vessel on the previous shift and were not turned off at the main gas supply point, allowing them to flood the vessel overnight with Argon, an odourless, invisible gas that displaces oxygen. While working alone in the tanker without supervision, Wu tragically died of asphyxiation.
He was only discovered later that morning after he did not appear for Smoko, it wasnt until 9:30 that another apprentice thought to check on him and found Wu unconscious in the tank. There was no clear rescue plan in place. Two workers who selflessly jumped into the tank in an attempt to save their colleague had no self contained breathing apparatus and nearly succumbed to asphyxiation as well. From only their short sharp exposure they felt ‘dizzy and lightheaded and started shaking’. It was only by dint of their improvised rescue to remove their colleague from the tank that Wu was removed from the danger zone, despite their best efforts and the hasty arrival of emergency services, Wu was pronounced dead at the scene.
Pictured: Dillon Wu
Later investigation revealed that this is a task that is routinely done without a spotter, without supervision, pre entry atmosphere testing, and continuous monitoring. There was no confined space entry procedure nor any written procedures for the task.
During the subsequent WorkSafe investigation a gas welder was sent off for testing and found to be defective: “the wire feeder had fallen into a state of disrepair. The solenoid valve in it would intermittently become stuck in the ‘on’ position, allowing argon gas to leak freely through the welder’s MIG torch nozzle when it was not in use. As a result of that defect, over which the company had management and control, argon gas was able to flow into the tanker overnight, reducing the level of oxygen in it,”
In every step of this task there is a failure by the responsible person, the PCBU and its officers, to uphold their basic duty of care, with inadequate training, supervision, processes and procedures for confined space entry work, combined with a deficient regimen to routinely inspect and maintain its welding equipment. To use the colloquial term, it was a cowboy show.
Being an inexperienced worker Dillon Wu was largely unaware of the risks imposed in what he was tasked with and was thus incapable of conducting a proper risk assessment and implementing adequate controls for this task.
A confined space is defined as: “an enclosed or partially enclosed space that: – is not designed or intended to be occupied by a person – is, or is designed or intended to be, at normal atmospheric pressure while any person is in the space; and – is or is likely to be a risk to health and safety from: an atmosphere that does not have a safe oxygen level, or contaminants, including airborne gases, vapours and dusts, that may cause injury from fire or explosion, or harmful concentrations of any airborne contaminants, or engulfment.”2
Dillon Wu’s job task clearly fit the bill, while working in a confined space there are specific policies and procedures to mitigate the risk set as national standards, a robust written risk review must be undertaken, making the vessel safe for confined space entry by atmosphere testing, forced ventilation etc, implementing an entry procedure which documents the role of the standby person/ spotter, along with other specific controls for the hazards introduced by the work being conducted (ie welding) via the hierarchy of controls, along with emergency response procedures.
If any of these things were implemented, in part or as a whole, it would have saved Dillon Wu’s life. In court a representative for Marshall Lethlean Industries Pty Ltd did not contest the findings and subsequently plead guilty one charge of failure of a person who has management or control to ensure that the workplace is safe and without risks to health.
In his sentencing remarks, Judge Trapnell, concluded:
“The company took no steps to ensure against the risk of injury or death associated with a gas leak from defective welding equipment. The available steps were accessible, relatively low cost and in the case of turning off the gas main, no cost at all. In my opinion that conduct amounts to evident disregard by the Company for the safety of Mr Wu and others at its workplace.”
Despite “serious and multiple failures to observe safety procedures with the readily foreseeable risk of severe injury or death”, Marshall Lethlean Industries Pty Ltd was convicted and fined a mere $600,000 – the equivalent of a corporate speeding ticket.
Marshall Lethlean Industries is an SME with an estimated annual revenue of $11 Million, in the same year as the incident, it was the recipient of a local Industry fund for transition grant of $823 907!3. As such, this penalty is not a sufficient deterrent. This is a travesty of justice, tantamount to an exoneration of what can only described as corporate murder.
This type of incident is not a freak event or one off, Just in Australia over the period 2000 – 2012 (the last available data)4, there were 59 confined space related deaths. Working in Confined spaces is extremely dangerous as it exposes workers to multiple hazards, both Physical and Chemical hazards can exist. Confined space accidents are notorious for multiple casualties, with the largest risks coming from the injury and subsequent recovery of people from the space. In this instance, it was dumb luck that there were not multiple fatalities in executing their makeshift rescue.
Despite this, Judge Trapnell leaned to the side of leniency for Marshall Lethlean Industries as:
“The incident occurred during a time of transition between the old system and the new system, where the new system had not yet been fully implemented at the new site, utilising upgraded plant and equipment at the new premises at a cost in excess of $2.8 million.”
During the early days at the new plant “no safety or emergency systems [were] in place to protect workers at the site.“
“Denunciation, general deterrence and just punishment must be given substantial weight in sentencing the Company for this offence. However, because of the Company’s lack of prior convictions, its previous good safety record and the remedial steps it has taken since this tragic incident occurred, I consider very little, if any, weight need be given to specific deterrence or protection of the community.”
The company showed palpable disregard for the safety of Dillon Wu and others in the workplace, ignoring nearly every single rule for working in confined spaces. There is no excuse as the relevant information in the national standards for working in confined spaces is freely available for anyone to read online, as listed above.
The utter disregard was so great that while “the available steps were accessible, relatively low cost and in the case of turning off the gas main, no cost at all.”, the controls were still not implemented.
Pictured: Dillon Wu’s tools scattered in the steel tank
This ‘cowboy show’ follows in the footsteps of many workplaces in contravening health and safety standards in the pursuit of production targets and other metrics of profit, evident by its disregard for the mandatory requirements for working in confined spaces and very poor or non existent workplace safety culture.
Capital’s inherent drive to cut costs and maximise profit will always come at the expense of workers; costs paid in substandard wages, worsened conditions, and in the most extreme – but by no means numerically insignificant – cases, entirely avoidable deaths as we see here. Better safety conditions under capitalism can and must be won, and traditionally, asserting workers’ power through unions and collective organisation has been the most dependable and often the only way of doing so. But tendencies at its core – which sporadic slaps on the wrist by the capitalist state are powerless to put a stop to – will ensure that the profit seeking capitalist system will continue to create the conditions for ongoing cases of workplace injury and death.
In 1845 Friedrich Engels described the lives of mine workers in his sketch of the conditions of the English working class:
“In the whole British Empire there is no occupation in which a man may meet his end in so many diverse ways as in this one. The coal-mine is the scene of a multitude of the most terrifying calamities, and these come directly from the selfishness of the bourgeoisie. The hydrocarbon gas which develops so freely in these mines.. ..[combined with] the carbonic acid gas, which also develops in great quantities, accumulates in the deeper parts of the mine, frequently reaching the height of a man, and suffocates every one who gets into it.
The doors which separate the sections of the mines are meant to prevent the propagation of explosions and the movement of the gases; but since they are entrusted to small children, who often fall asleep or neglect them, this means of prevention is illusory.
A proper ventilation of the mines by means of fresh air-shafts could almost entirely remove the injurious effects of both these gases. But for this purpose the bourgeoisie has no money to spare, preferring to command the working-men to use the Davy lamp, which is wholly useless because of its dull light, and is, therefore, usually replaced by a candle. If an explosion occurs, the recklessness of the miner is blamed, though the bourgeois might have made the explosion well-nigh impossible by supplying good ventilation.”5
The premature death of Dillon Wu two weeks into learning his trade is tragic, but like the deaths of the English miners in the early days of capitalist develoment, the cause inst a mystery. His death is the ultimately the product and outcome of an outmoded economic system, outlined by Marx as he sketched the Manifesto in 1848:
“Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine”
“Modern Industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is”6
With the passage of nearly 200 years since the aforementioned two texts were written by these great men, the technology exists to significantly reduce (if not eliminate) workers exposure to these industrial safety hazards, but the profit seeking and subsequent indifference and negligence of the ruling class who own and control the means of production remain the same.
Dillon Wu was killed on the job, as an apprentice he was being used as cheap labour with little in the way of training and no consideration for his safety and well being. Under capitalism more such incidents will occur until workers are able to exercise more control over the processes and systems of high risk work.
In the face of this tragedy, the program of the union bureaucracy and their Labor Party masters is fatally limited by an unwillingness to substantially challenge those core features of the capitalist system which work against workers’ safety. “With a state election coming up” the Victorian Trades Hall Council calls for workers to sign a petition “pressuring the Andrews Labor Government to address the problems in the apprenticeship system”7. To this Marxists counterpose a program of breaking with the ALP and building direct worker power by expanding union/worker control and oversight over production and safety processes – regardless of the approval of capitalist politicians and the bosses.
It is the role of communists to smash this system and build one in which the negligence and profit seeking of the bosses is replaced by the rule of the workers; one which demonstrates care for inexperienced and young workers by providing adequate resourcing to ensure all jobs are done safe and well – ensuring a comparable, avoidable tragedy never happens again.