Early guilty plea to reckless conduct charges for 2019 Avgas drum explosion

Cattle mustering contractor, 25-year-old Arron Peter Kerr (trading as Kerr Contracting & Co) has been convicted and handed a penalty of $20,000, after pleading guilty to two charges of reckless conduct over the serious injury of a young worker at Montejinni Station, 320km south west of Katherine.

Mr Kerr entered the early guilty plea yesterday afternoon in the Northern Territory Local Court in Darwin.

In 2019 and less than a month after moving to the Northern Territory, the 18-year-old ringer from New South Wales was severely burnt at a remote mustering camp when he was tasked with cutting open a 44-gallon drum previously filled with Avgas.

Although the drum was washed multiple times, it still exploded when he cut it with an angle grinder. The worker suffered burns to his hands, arms and face, with blisters forming and some bursting within 30 minutes of the incident.

Mr Kerr, in discussion with another worker who applied the initial first aid (the first aider), decided the burns were not severe and decided the injured worker should be driven approximately 40 kilometres to the Montejinni Station homestead, instead of the Kalkarindji Medical Centre.

During this discussion, Mr Kerr told the first aider and the injured worker to mislead the homestead staff and say the burns were caused from lighting a gas barbeque.

At the homestead, the Montejinni Station’s Operations Manager, who held a remote first aid certificate, assessed the injuries as first and second degree burns.

The Operations Manager asked the injured worker if he wanted to attend the clinic or Katherine Hospital. However the first aider responded they would manage.

The Operations Manager advised the first aider how to treat and care for the injury, including keeping the wounds clean and sterile, and was told the injured worker should be taken to hospital at the first sign of infection.

The injured worker and the first aider returned to the remote mustering camp where facilities were basic and appropriate medical treatment was not available. This resulted in unboiled bore water mixed with a veterinary antiseptic being used to treat the injured worker's burns.

Over the next five days, the injured worker was required to work when he was able, despite his condition deteriorating to include a fever, internal bleeding, suffering cramps and his burns becoming infected.

The injured worker’s tasks included preparing hot food and riding a horse mustering cattle. During this time, the injured worker was mocked and verbally abused by Mr Kerr.

On the fifth day after the explosion, Mr Kerr verbally abused the injured worker and told him to go home when he was unable to manage his horse to cross a small creek due to the burns on his hands.

After the mustering crew returned to the camp, the injured worker packed his belongings and asked for a lift to the nearest roadhouse. The request was initially refused, however a lift was organised when the injured worker insisted.

The injured worker was dropped off at the Top Springs Hotel, at the junction of the Buntine and Buchanan highways, where he asked bar patrons for help. A good Samaritan seeing the condition the injured worker was in, drove him 291km to Katherine.

The injured worker required specialist medical treatment and was transferred to Darwin where he required surgery. He suffered first and second degree burns to seven percent of his body, which had become infected, and also suffered gastroenteritis which resulted in internal haemorrhaging.

The Northern Territory Local Court imposed the following penalties:

  • Mr Kerr was convicted of two breaches of section 31 (reckless conduct) of the Work Health and Safety (National Uniform Legislation) Act 2011 (the Act), and the convictions was recorded. These are the first reckless conduct convictions recorded in the Territory.
  • Mr Kerr was given a two year good behaviour bond, meaning if he commits any offence within two years, the court can resentence him on these two reckless conduct charges.
  • Mr Kerr was ordered to pay the injured worker $20,000. This is the first time the courts have made this order and is separate to the workers compensation entitlements the injured worker received.

The Northern Territory’s Work Health and Safety Regulator Bill Esteves said it was difficult to comprehend how there could have been such disregard for a young worker who was seriously injured, and indicated it would be difficult for a person, in particular a parent, to read the details of this incident and not feel some emotion for what this young worker had experienced.

“Young workers are amongst the most vulnerable workers in the workplace and it is vital that all employers and duty holders exercise their duty of care in protecting them.”

“Mr Kerr in this incident, has totally and absolutely failed in his duty.”

“This young worker was in a particularly vulnerable situation having recently moved to the Territory and working in a remote location which limited his contact with his support networks such as friends and family,” Mr Esteves said.

“It would appear the culture of his workplace was one of stoicism, where people were expected to harden up, just get on with the job and get it done.”

“This attitude not only contributed to the serious injury of this young worker, but placed him at further risk and worsened his injuries,” Mr Esteves said.

“Young workers starting in any industry are eager to fit in and prove their worth, but this shouldn’t be to the detriment to their health and safety.”

“Over half a dozen individuals at Montejinni Station had seen or were aware of the injuries suffered by this young worker, yet no one intervened and took him to the medical treatment he required,” Mr Esteves said.

“In fact, when he was finally transported off the station, he was left alone at Top Springs Hotel to fend for himself.”

“If this is the prevailing culture in this industry, industry leaders need to examine this case and determine if this culture needs to change,” Mr Esteves said.

NT WorkSafe is committed to providing advice and up-to-date information on work health and safety to (WHS) duty holders.  Businesses who are unclear about their (WHS) duties are encouraged to contact NT WorkSafe on 1800 019 115, or accesses the information on the NT WorkSafe website at worksafe.nt.gov.au.

Note to Media: The worker’s family has requested privacy and asked that the worker’s name not be used.

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