The site of the Bradbury Industrial Services fire has been linked to criminal activities. And the company’s history of non-compliance is incriminating evidence.
Melbourne was cloaked in an acidic haze last month following a fire at Bradbury Industrial Services, a company which stores and disposes of hazardous industrial waste and chemicals. The smoke has now cleared in more ways than one – former employees have come forward to talk about the accident and the shocking history of workplace practices that caused it.
It seems that for several years Bradbury has fostered a culture that endangers their employees through non-compliance with health and safety laws. As two of the more egregious examples, it has been reported that employees only wore protective clothing during inspections and Bradbury didn’t provide appropriate training on handling dangerous substances.
From the appearance of things Bradbury is a case study in how companies are rarely unscrupulous in just a single area. Just as a company that tolerates harassment will be likely to cover it up, a company that breaches environmental laws won’t mind flaunting workplace health and safety legislation.
A history of non-compliance
The recent fire wasn’t the first time the company’s been under a regulator’s spotlight. The Environment Protection Agency Victoria (EPA) fined Bradbury $15,000 in 2016 after it found the company was storing 40,000 litres of hazardous waste without a license (this discovery was made after a fire broke out in 2013).
One month prior to the recent fire, the EPA suspended Bradbury’s license after an internal investigation found that the company was conducting non-compliant behaviour.
According to the ABC, the investigation revealed that Bradbury was storing around 300,000 litres of chemicals on site even though it was only licensed to store 150,000. It also found Bradbury had been transporting and storing hazardous products without a license (tests revealed that residue of the chemicals were found in a sinkhole). It is alleged that Bradbury dumped the chemicals to avoid being caught with unlicensed amounts of hazardous waste and chemicals.
“The community has a right to expect that the management of hazardous and industrial waste is done to a high standard that meets regulations. This was not the case with Bradbury and is why EPA has taken this important decision,” said EPA CEO Cathy Wilkinson in a statement.
Employees come first?
The systemic maltreatment of the Bradbury employees is arguably the company’s worst breach of the law, as it endangered employees’ lives.
The blaze, which took 175 firefighters and several days to control, was started by a single drum of solvent. Vignesh Varatharaja was the worker who filled the drum which exploded and set him on fire. He sounded the alarm and was rushed to hospital where he was treated for burns.
Muththukirishnan Karththikeyan was another employee who was injured in the fire. He had also previously endured injuries from chemical burns while working for Bradbury.
Karththikeyan and Varatharaja both said that throughout their time at the company, workers were not given adequate clothing to protect themselves against the chemicals. In fact, they were only required to wear appropriate and safe uniforms when there was an inspection.
“If EPA is coming, on that particular day, all safety goggles must be worn, and a mask must be worn. Protective outfit would also be provided. Everything has to be worn only on the day EPA comes,” Karththikeyan told the ABC.
It is unclear here whether or not the employees were provided with appropriate clothing or told to not wear them. Alternatively it is possible there was no clear policy around uniform. Either way, it shows a disregard for the law and a lack of consideration for the basic safety of employees.
Showing that their unscrupulous culture wasn’t limited to one area, Bradbury also hid excess chemicals off site prior to an inspection.
“They would tell us that EPA is coming a day or two prior to EPA coming. They took away all the things from there to another store. They transferred using a truck,” an anonymous employee told the ABC.
At the time of the fire, all the workers were wearing only plain cotton-blend clothing, which they were required to provide for themselves. On top of that, due to a lack of training the workers were not storing the chemicals properly.
Varatharaja told the Canberra Times that he and his colleagues were assured that a fire would only happen if they used their mobile phones or smoked near the chemicals – he was doing neither.
“I used to stand very close every time I pumped the solvent. Luckily this time, I was draining instead of pumping, so I was standing two metres away,” he says.
In a bitter twist, it appears Bradbury knew it should have been doing better. At the time of publishing, the company’s website says it cares for its employees and trains them to a high standard.
“We actively promote equal opportunity and employ, train, develop and promote employees based on merit, according to their interests, skills and ability. We are committed to building a safe working environment and ensuring the wellbeing of all our employees.”
At breaking point
Most cases of non-compliance reveal a darker truth – that organisations are guilty of more than what meets the eye.
Thankfully only two people were injured in the Bradbury fire, it could have been much worse, as it was in this case HRM reported on in 2016.
After the Samarco Dam collapsed in Brazil in 2015, 20 employees of BHP Billiton were charged with manslaughter after 19 people died and hundreds were left homeless.
Leading up to the burst, BHP and Vale (another mining company) were aware of the weakness in the dam but decided to continue work.
At the time it was a tough lesson for HR to learn.
Then Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James told HRM that those involved in serious issues “can no longer shelter from liability if they are involved in instances of disregarding workplace legislation, no matter how far down the management chain of command.”
The dam burst in Brazil led to a lengthy legal case, which is still in process. And after yet another dam burst in Brazil at Brumadinho at the beginning of the year which resulted in hundreds of deaths, many are calling for rapid change in safety legislation.
This call is echoed here in Australia following the Bradbury fire. Ben Davis, the secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union told the ABC that, even with constant EPA investigations, a fire still broke out.
“There’s got to be a better system of laws and regulation around the industry,” says Davis. “I’m not saying the EPA are the bad guys in this, because I don’t think they are. I think they are underfunded and under-resourced, that’s the real issue, but we do need to get to the bottom of it all.”
Earlier this year the Royal Commission report spoke in-depth about how culture – typically an HR responsibility – is a direct cause of bad, and even criminal, behaviour. So it’s perhaps not surprising that allegations of criminal links between Bradbury employees and a biker gang have surfaced. The cliche is that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. Perhaps the next line should be “and the standard you accept is the standard you encourage”.
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