Service stations operate in one of the most challenging environments imaginable, in terms of safety to both staff and customers.
Storing thousands of litres of highly combustible material is an obvious industry hazard, and not surprisingly, government agencies impose additional specific OH&S obligations on businesses that manufacture, import, transport, supply, store, handle or use dangerous goods.
Stored fuel is by no means the only hazard – consider for a moment the many other potentially dangerous situations ever present in a service station: vehicles entering the premises amongst pedestrian traffic and fuel bowsers, customers filling jerry cans on forecourts, customers and/or thieves driving off with a fuel pump hose still attached to their car, vehicles running off the road and into fuel bowsers, smokers lighting up cigarettes on the premises, and massive fuel delivery trucks restocking the station tanks. There is also the threat of robbery, often carried out by armed and violent perpetrators.
Current regulatory issues for service station owners
While all businesses should want to protect their staff (and customers), governments place legal obligations on employers to provide a safe workplace. Heavy fines apply to those who fail to do so.
In 2013, SafeWork NSW fined a Sydney service station operator $85,000 over an LPG fire, even though no one was injured. SafeWork NSW convicted the operator for failing to ensure the health and safety of workers and putting other people at risk. The incident occurred when a staff member was decanting LPG from a large cylinder into a customer’s smaller cylinder and the fuel ignited causing a significant fire.
At the time, four separate customer cylinders were connected to the larger decanting cylinders and a single attendant was working in the filling area. The deadman’s handle on each of the four customer cylinders had been jammed open with screwdrivers or lengths of metal wedged under the pivot end of the trigger.
WorkCover’s executive director Work Health and Safety, Peter Dunphy, said the incident was caused by failure to follow the safety systems which the service station operator had in place.
“The incident was clearly foreseeable, and indeed foreseen, as the director of the business had twice before sacked employees for overriding the deadman’s handle,” Mr Dunphy said.
“In the worst case scenario, the consequences of not following work health and safety procedures could have led to the death, or serious injury, of an employee or member of the public. There are simple steps to be followed to minimise the risk of fire, and in previous cases the service station operators had been quite willing to apply these steps.”
Forecourt and fuel equipment management and maintenance
Maintaining a safe workplace goes beyond the adoption of sound OH&S practices. According to NSW-based Petrolink Engineering’s managing director, Barry Boné, maintenance should be
a scheduled and regular occurrence at service stations.
“There are both the seen and unseen components that have to be regularly inspected, serviced and replaced,” Mr Boné said.
“There are above-ground components and equipment such as hoses, nozzles, couplings and even signage that has to be regularly checked, cleaned and lubricated.
“Then there are the unseen components, which are probably more critical. Underground tanks and pipework should be regularly tested for compliance and integrity. Groundwater wells should be checked and all service stations must ensure that SIRA [NSW State Insurance Regulatory Authority] records are in order,” he added.
According to Mr Boné, regular maintenance is an investment against the unforeseen, adding that there are many examples where poor maintenance and poor record keeping has resulted in both environmental damage and significant fines.
New technologies and equipment
Mr Boné also said modern materials and installation techniques make the current service stations fairly safe; tanks are double walled fibre-reinforced-plastic, pipes are double contained polyethylene, pumping systems are fitted with leak detectors and tanks have overfill protection devices – the total system can all be monitored by computer assisted programs.
However, many sites can be up to 60 years old with failing underground tanks and a history of `old style’ operation where fuel spills were simply hosed off the hardstand areas. One of the many issues related to older sites is that of groundwater contamination.
EPAs in Victoria, NSW and South Australia are investigating and taking action against a large number of sites that have been recognised as contaminating groundwater both under, and surrounding, a number of service stations: both decommissioned sites and some service stations still operating.
“Underground petroleum storage systems (UPSS) in older sites were not manufactured to today’s stringent standards,” Mr Boné said.
“They have corroded and are leaking total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) into the surrounding environments including groundwater.
“Site contamination comes with a number of issues apart from environmental damage. No doubt, the cost of site remediation will be in the millions of dollars and the sites could be rendered obsolete and of no commercial value. Until fully investigated and tested, the contamination of the groundwater may go untreated for a number of years.
“Even relatively recent UPSS installations have the risk of leaks – tanks can fail due to a shift in sub-surface strata, earthquakes or ground swell due to extended rain or flooding.”
Compliance and awareness varies across operators, however, bodies are monitoring service stations on a regular basis and non-compliance can mean significant fines. Should a UPSS contaminate soils and groundwater, the site owner will be expected to pay for site remediation, not only for the site on which the service station stands, but also the surrounding area that may be affected.
General hazards and control measures
Service station proprietors can take further steps to ensure a safe forecourt environment for customers and staff.
The Queensland Government publication, A Guide For Service Station Operators Under The Work Health and Safety Act 2011, says spill containment systems (e.g. curbing, graded surfaces, inlets to underground interceptors) in place for the dispensing area on the forecourt, should be well maintained. Older installations, that may not have such systems and therefore rely on spill kits and emergency response actions, should consider the direction of flow of any spilled liquids.
Bollards, high curbing or other barriers should be used to protected equipment such as dispensers and vent pipes from impact damage.
Controlling fire or explosion during tanker filling operations is also critical. In 2009, a fire occurred when a fuel tanker was unloading petrol into underground tanks at a service station in Maddington, Western Australia.
A fire started at the fill point, which spread to the tanker’s tyres and later to its rear fuel compartments. Two of the rear compartments ruptured during the fire. One of the ruptures created a large fireball that extensively damaged the petrol station building.
According to an incident investigation report by the Department of Mines and Petroleum, Resources Safety Western Australia, the fire was caused by the ignition of a mixture of fuel vapour and air close to the underground tank fill box. The source of the fuel vapour was probably within the containment sump, which may not have been drained back to a tank. A definitive ignition source could not be identified.
Clearly, service station operators need appropriate fire protection, and AS1940 provides guidance for this situation in section 11 (fire protection) for tank vehicle delivery locations and fuel dispensing locations.
Generally, the site should also be free of accumulated combustible materials such as wooden pallets, tyres, cardboard and plastic. Keep vegetation clear of storage and handling systems as maintenance requires the use of portable ignition sources such as hedge trimmers and mowers, which may be subject to the workplace’s hot work permit policy and procedures.
Security and theft prevention
Pre-paying of fuel by customers has been mooted as a means of preventing theft, but this system has been rejected by the Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce (VACC), which represents some 300 service station operators.
“Pre-pay would only work if there was harmonisation across the industry and every service station introduced it at the same time,” VACC executive director Geoff Gwilym said, adding that new bowsers might also be required.
“You can’t just flick a switch on existing bowsers and convert them to pre-pay overnight. This action is likely to put many small fuel retailers out of business,” he said.
CCTV cameras provide an important deterrent, as well as vital evidence in the case of an offence; however the use of clothing such as hooded jackets by perpetrators can limit the effectiveness of such equipment.
Consequently, every dispenser should be clearly visible from the console/counter or on video. Staff should constantly observe vehicle movement in the forecourt, taking note of any suspicious or erratic driving/behaviour.
Worksafe Victoria advises in a Safe Work Material Statement, that when observing individuals who have previously stolen fuel, staff should not consider approaching the vehicle due to the risk of violence. Rather, they should contact police immediately, making sure they do so discreetly.
Drawing attention to what they are doing may create panic from the driver who may then exit the service station in an erratic manner, potentially hitting other vehicles, customers/pedestrians and/or service station structures. There is also the possibility of fuel spillage and fire if the thief panics and hurries away without correctly returning the hose to the dispenser.
State governments provide a great deal of documentation (both regulatory and guidelines) in regard to the safe operation of service stations. Operators should visit the appropriate websites to ensure their staff are well prepared and able to handle any situation that may arise.