In In the Courts by Clyde Mooney

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A Coroner’s inquest into the deaths of two men in an explosion at the closing of the Hotel Rochester has brought into question the responsibilities of the financially stressed outgoing operators.

The Hotel in Rochester* was previously operated by husband and wife publicans Wayne and Denise Conway. On 14 June, 2014, they were forced to close their business due to financial hardship.

On 15 June, 34-year-old Barry Purtell and 52-year-old Dave Lobb attempted to remove the pub’s refrigeration unit for the Conways, during which the unit exploded. Both men were seriously injured and both subsequently died of their injuries.

A Coronial inquest into their deaths is currently taking place in Victoria, and experts have already made it quite clear the accident could have been prevented.

The Court has heard that the explosion was caused by leaking refrigerant gas, most likely ignited by a cigarette lighter. Both men were smokers.

Wayne Conway reported to coroner Paresa Spanos that Purtell had previously worked on the refrigerator unit and offered to remove it, describing the job as “a piece of piss”. His experience with it and qualifications as a diesel mechanic led Conway to believe Purtell was “qualified” for the job.

Purtell had reportedly topped-up the unit’s refrigeration gas with automotive refrigerant to keep it in operation about eight months prior, which demonstrated the unit had a leak.

Yesterday, LPG Measurement Technology managing director John Clark gave evidence to the inquiry outlining what would have been the “correct procedure” for removal, involving vacuuming out the refrigerant, purging it with nitrogen and removing the compressor first and separately.

“If that had happened, this (incident) wouldn’t have occurred, regardless of the refrigerant used,” advised Clark.

Phil Wilkinson from industry body AIRAH (Australian Institute of Refrigeration Air-conditioning & Heating) told the inquest that there are significant gaps in the regulation framework of this sector.

While the use of automotive refrigerant was labelled “inappropriate”, Wilkinson cited that refrigerant gases were increasingly becoming flammable as the industry moved away from harmful synthetic gases.

However, it was noted that the Rochester’s cellar contained no safety signage regarding the presence of explosive gases, nor was there a fire extinguisher or a gas sensor, despite the known leak. OHS laws surrounding contractors typically put the onus on the employer, even if workers engage in unsafe practises, such as incorrect procedure or the use of a cigarette lighter.

The inquest has learned Worksafe Victoria will provide evidence regarding the lack of relevant signage, and on the stand Conway conceded that warnings of the gas should have been posted.

The hearing is expected to conclude today, with findings handed down at a later date.


NOTE: the Hotel Rochester (in Rochester) remained closed after the accident for more than a year. New and unrelated proprietors have since moved in, and reopened the hotel around a year ago.

*Not to be confused with the Rochester Hotel in Fitzroy.