The Guardian July 4, 2001


Guilty ESSO

by Marcus Browning

Victoria's unions have again taken up their demand for the introduction of 
industrial manslaughter laws following last week's verdict by a Victorian 
Supreme Court jury that Esso was guilty-as-charged of causing the explosion 
at its Longford plant on September 29, 1998. The disaster killed two 
workers, Peter Wilson and John Lowery, and injured eight others. The Court 
fined the company  owned by oil transnational Exxon-Mobil  $2.75 
million in combined penalties.

Esso had pleaded not guilty to the charges, which were brought under the 
Occupational Health and Safety Act. They included Esso's failure to: 

* conduct adequate hazard identification; maintain a safe plant and working 
environment;

* train employees and supervisors in the provision of a safe response to 
specified events:

* monitor conditions in the plant.

"A monetary penalty is not enough", said Trades Hall Council Secretary, 
Leigh Hubbard. "That's why the industrial manslaughter legislation is 
absolutely vital, because it will take a few directors of companies to be 
pinged for industrial manslaughter before some of the boardrooms and 
executives will take this issue seriously."

The Bracks' Government has previously committed itself to increasing 
penalties, including the introduction of the offence of industrial 
manslaughter. Under proposed legislation, fines would increase to $750,000 
for companies found to be breaching safety provisions. For those found 
guilty of industrial manslaughter the fine would be $5 million and $2 
million for negligently causing serious injury.

Following the verdict Jim Ward, the Longford worker Esso accused in the 
1999 Royal Commission of causing the disaster, said, "It is a shame that 
Esso chose to do what they did [shift the blame], and I think that's 
evident now.

"Society knows the type of company they are, it knows how they treat their 
workers, and I think they've been condemned because of it." In an 
indication of the traumatic effect of the explosion and fireball on the 
Longford workers, Mr Ward said, "I can't talk about it in the past tense, 
because it's ongoing. It's been absolutely horrific." Unions, along with 
the lawyers representing businesses that were hit by the two-week shutdown 
of the state's gas supplies as result of the explosion, said the combined 
penalties were inadequate.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court verdict will strengthen the Longford 
workers' claims for compensation, which are due to be heard this month. A 
$1.4 billion class action by businesses will go ahead next year.

In a statement welcoming the conviction of Esso, the Trades Hall Council 
noted that the Court's decision vindicated the Royal Commission findings  
that the company had failed to provide and maintain a safe working 
environment  and that it was a potent warning to other employers who try 
to boost profits by sacrificing workplace heath and safety.

"Despite Esso reporting increased profits in 1999-2000 to $784 million, it 
has tried to shift responsibility for health and safety since this 
devastating incident. The company has continually tried to blame others for 
the Longford disaster, including its own workforce. But now we have it 
confirmed yet again that the fault lies at the company's door.

"The conviction also reminds us that WorkCover must be a more vigilant 
regulator of health and safety  it is not enough to let companies self 
regulate."

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