The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) is calling on Port Pirie’s lead smelter to improve its safety procedure compliance following four “near-miss” incidents in two years, including two molten lead “explosions” which it says could have seriously injured or killed employees.

Key points:

  • The AWU says Port Pirie’s lead smelter must improve its safety procedure compliance
  • It says four “near-miss” incidents in two years could have seriously injured or killed employees
  • Smelter owner Nyrstar denies any suggestion it may not comply with safety policies or health and safety laws

AWU representative Mick Hopgood said the frequency of the incidents at the smelter, owned by international company Nyrstar, was “severely” affecting his members’ mental health.

“The concerns are that those incidents have the potential to cause serious harm, if not death,” he said.

“They become concerned about their own well-being and the safety of their fellow workers … and they do tell me about it.”

Workers suffer ‘ongoing injuries’

Mr Hopgood said the incidents included two molten lead “explosions” in the smelter’s refinery: one in May 2019 and one in November 2020.

“They actually erupted … onto the floor and in the general area,” he said.

Nyrstar workers in 2014.(ABC News: Eloise Fuss)

Mr Hopgood said three employees had only just left the impacted area before one of the explosions occurred.

He said a member’s leg fell through a roof last year and in December another received superficial crush injuries.

“There’s an incident that occurred in the copper plant, that I’m yet to investigate, where an employee was jammed up against some equipment,” Mr Hopgood said.

Safe Work SA also reported an incident in which “molten material and gas escaped” from the smelter’s newly built TSL furnace in 2019, which the AWU was not involved with.

The agency said it was “continuing investigations” and was “working closely with all parties associated with the incidents”.

Nyrstar ‘committed to highest level of safety’

Mr Hopgood said it was not Nyrstar’s follow-up after an incident that concerned him, rather that he wanted more work done to prevent them in the first place.

An aerial view of Nyrstar’s smelter site in Port Pirie(Source: Carl Saville)

“Our concerns are that there are sometimes lack of communication, lack of procedures being followed, and not by our members, but by the company itself,” he said.

“We encourage the company to look at its safety record and ensure that it complies with its procedures and policies and the Act.”

In a statement, the company said it was “committed to delivering the highest level of safety for its employees and operations”.

Nyrstar said it worked proactively with stakeholders including SafeWork SA to drive continual improvements to its safety performance and actively promoted discussion and communication to improve site safety.

It said it categorically denied any suggestion it may not comply with safety policies, or health and safety laws.