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Rochester coronial investigation releases findings

The Coroner has completed its official investigation into the deaths of Barry Purtell and David Lobb. The two men, aged 34 and 52 respectively, died after gases from a refrigeration compressor ignited in the cellar of the Hotel Rochester, Bendigo in June 2014.

Purtell and Lobb, neither of whom were qualified refrigeration mechanics, were helping the publicans close down the hotel by removing the refrigeration compressor in the basement.

The investigation found that the compressor was known to be leaking refrigerant and had been doing so for several years. Purtell, a motor mechanic, had topped up the unit with car hydrocarbon air conditioning refrigerant eight months before the accident. At this point the system contained a mix of flammable and non-flammable refrigerants.

When the hotel was being cleared, the copper refrigerant pipework was cut with a hacksaw, resulting in the refrigerant mix leaking into the cellar. The explosion occurred when Purtell or Lobb used a cigarette lighter.

Coroner Paresa Spanos noted that the deaths were preventable in the sense that the explosion could have been averted through correct maintenance, correct use and labelling of refrigerants, and correct dismantling and removal processes. However, she declined to make recommendations for changes to industry practices.

“Mr Lobb and Mr Purtell died in circumstances of a tragic accident in the course of removing the compressor to help out a friend. While both men were good with their hands and happy to lend a hand, their deaths highlight the dangers of unqualified people doing work that requires qualifications or, at least, a solid understanding of the substances and risks involved.

“There is ample evidence before me that the refrigeration industry, which is not without its regulatory complexities, faces additional challenges with the move to low-GWP refrigerants, none the least because the low-GWP refrigerants are flammable and the vast majority of refrigeration mechanics/technicians were not trained in the use of such refrigerants.

“However, as neither Mr Lobb nor Mr Purtell were qualified refrigeration mechanics/technicians, I do not consider it appropriate to make further comment or recommendation about industry practices.”

Meanwhile, many industry bodies have been working to establish more effective training and practices for handling flammable refrigerants. Australia’s first official training course for A2/A2L (mildly flammable) refrigerants has now been announced, and AIRAH continues to offer a Flammable Refrigerant Safety Guide.

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