Worksafe investigating after WA refinery workers are exposed to toxic chemicals

Worksafe investigating after WA refinery workers are exposed to toxic chemicals

Western Australia’s mining union says it holds grave concerns for workplace safety, after workers were treated for chemical exposure at two sites in the state’s South West.

Albemarle told the ABC that on two occasions “a small number of workers” at its growing lithium refinery at Kemerton, 150 kilometres south of Perth, complained of throat and eye irritations.

Bunbury Hospital confirmed 13 workers presented for treatment with symptoms consistent with chemical exposure on 1 February. 

In a separate incident, a worker was treated for burns at Alcoa’s Wagerup alumina refinery on Wednesday.

WorkSafe WA has been notified of both incidents.

Albemarle supplies lithium hydroxide used for the electrification of vehicles.(ABC South West: Georgia Loney)

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) said it had significant concerns about safety at Albemarle’s operation.

It said it was aware of at least 25 workers who believed they had been exposed to harmful chemicals over three separate incidents this month. 

“Workers have every right to expect that they will return home safe and sound at the end of the day,” state secretary Mick Buchan said.

“Not [be] in hospital with eyes watering, coughing and throwing up the toxic chemicals that they have been exposed to while working on site.”

Mr Buchan said a meeting with Albermarle had left the union with serious concerns about potential further injuries.

“This is a new project for the region, and we have been active in highlighting the inadequacies of the site’s basic safety procedures,” he said.

“There are grave concerns for the Kemerton workforce.”

Worksafe is investigating the incident at the Albemarle site.(ABC South West: Georgia Loney)

Albemarle said all workers who had reported symptoms were medically assessed and treated and declared fit to return to work.

“Albemarle is close to completing its investigation into what may have caused these symptoms,” a spokesperson said.

“The company has put in place interim precautionary measures until the investigation is complete, as the health and safety of all personnel is our top priority.”

A scaled-back expansion of the lithium refinery is currently underway.

Alcoa worker sustains caustic burns

WorkSafe has also launched a separate investigation after a worker sustained caustic burns at Alcoa’s Wagerup alumina refinery on Wednesday.

Alcoa told the ABC that the employee received immediate first aid and treatment for minor burns after coming into contact with a caustic substance on site.

It said they had since been cleared to return to work.

“We take any of these types of incidents extremely seriously and will continue to thoroughly investigate, identify risks and implement safety controls,” an Alcoa spokesperson said. 

Alcoa says one of its workers sustained minor burns from a caustic incident at its Wagerup refinery.(Supplied: Glyn Jones)

Not the first time

It is not the first time concerns have been raised about the safety of both companies’ operations in the state’s South West.

A handful of construction workers at Albemarle’s Kemerton site were taken to hospital as a precaution after potentially being exposed to harmful gas two years ago.

It prompted an order from Worksafe to install safety barriers to protect employees and a warning from the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union to do better.

Alcoa has been at the centre of a WorkSafe investigation more recently. 

A chemical spill at its Pinjarra refinery three months ago saw two men hospitalised with serious caustic burns. 

Alcoa said it was working to eliminate chemical contact incidents at its refineries, and that it recorded an approximate 40 per cent reduction in occurrences in 2023 compared to 2022.

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