13 Sep 2013

Fatal blast costs Watercare nearly $400,000

8:18 pm on 13 September 2013

A judge has ordered Auckland's council-owned water company to pay $396,000 for failing to protect its workers from a deadly gas explosion.

Watercare previously admitted two health and safety charges over the blast, which killed Canadian engineer and mother-of-two Philomen Gulland instantly as she worked in the underground pipe in Onehunga on 4 June 2011.

The force of the explosion also threw her work-mate, Ian Winson, a great distance. He lost both of his legs, suffered a badly injured arm, and has been through 18 major surgeries since.

Five others working nearby were also hurt - their injuries included broken bones, cuts, and bruising.

In the Auckland District Court on Friday, Judge Rob Ronayne fined the company $81,000 for its failings.

He also ordered $315,000 be paid to the victims and their families, including $100,000 to Ms Gulland's family.

Afterwards Watercare's chief executive, Mark Ford, said he was shattered by the families' statements and the company would not easily forget what had happened.

"We deeply regret the incident that led to the injuries that occurred that day and we continue to support and offer our ongoing sympathy to our employees and their families. The lives of our colleagues and friends were irreversibly changed that day."

Mr Ford says Watercare's safety policies were reviewed since the accident and it's changed the way it monitors gas levels.

Emotional testimony from families, victims

Prior to sentencing Ms Gulland's mother, Canadian-based Margaret Penner, told the judge she had been unable to function after her daughter's death.

Mr Winson's wife said he grieved every time he saw fathers play with their children.

Another worker, James Millard, broke down as he spoke of how sad, angry and guilty he felt about surviving the blast and how his injuries had changed his life.

Mr Millard said he wanted the court to send a very clear message to employers.

"All workers should be safe in the workplace ... Lives comes first. The defendant needs to take responsibility for what's happened and the pain and anguish this has caused me and the other victims."

Watercare's lawyer John Billington said the explosion was caused by a set of human errors and not systemic faults.

Company complacent, careless - prosecutor

Prosecutor Shona Carr, for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, told the court some workers didn't follow Watercare's procedures before the blast.

She also said Watercare didn't tell contractors that gas previously had been found in the area.

Ms Carr said the safety steps required by Watercare to protect its workers were not expensive, time-consuming or difficult, and the company was complacent and careless.

She said no explosion like this one had occurred anywhere else in the world.

Hazel Armstrong, the lawyer who acted for Ms Gulland's mother, says Mrs Penner is relieved to have reparation for her daughter's death.

"Her whole family got a reparation of $100,000 which will be divided between the two children - $40,000 for each of the two children and $20,000 for herself and Bernard - and she felt that that was a fair sum."