Australia

EXCLUSIVE: Spirit of Tasmania ship on which 16 horses died has history of safety concerns

EXCLUSIVE: The ship on which 16 horses died in January has a history of worker concerns about air quality in the cargo hold.

A former worker on the Spirit of Tasmania raised ongoing safety concerns about conditions on the ship including the level of carbon monoxide and diesel fumes workers were exposed to on board before he was sacked in 2013.

The worker is speaking out after the death of 16 polo horses that were transported on the ship last month. 

Ongoing investigation 

The incident, in which the apparently healthy horses were loaded on board the ship in Tasmania on January 28 and were found dead the next morning by their driver, polo breeder trainer Andrew Williams, is the subject of an ongoing investigation led by Tasmania's Department of Primary Industries.

The Spirit of Tasmania runs a regular vehicle, freight and passenger ferry service between Melbourne and Devonport in Tasmania.

Mr Williams was transporting 18 horses from an event at the Barnbougle Polo Club in north-east Tasmania on January 28. The horses were usually stabled at Willo Polo Club in New South Wales.

Just two of the horses in the truck survived the voyage and were taken for immediate veterinary treatment by Mr Williams. Another truck transporting horses on the same voyage that was driven by his head groom experienced no problems with the passage. No cause of the animals’ deaths has yet been established.

Former worker speaks out

Five years ago Torren McMaster worked as a stevedore for Qube Pty Ltd, loading and unloading vehicles on the Spirit of Tasmania, which is owned by TT-Line Pty Ltd. Mr McMaster, who lives in Melbourne, was sacked from his job by Qube in July 2013 and later lost his unfair dismissal case on appeal.

Mr McMaster told SBS News he had repeatedly complained to management about workers experiencing symptoms from the poor air quality on board the ship. He put it down to an increase in freight passage with more diesel trucks being loaded on.

“We all had the same symptoms,” he claimed. “A number of blokes used to get fat lips; of a night when I came home my wife said 'you've got blue skin, you look grey'. We had headaches, we had dizziness, memory was a bit [affected].”

A number of blokes used to get fat lips ... We had headaches, we had dizziness ...

- Torren McMaster, Former Qube employee

SBS News also spoke to a current Qube employee, who requested anonymity and said that on some days the air quality in the cargo section of the vessel is just as bad as when Mr McMaster first raised the issue in 2011. 

In his 2015 unfair dismissal case in the Federal Court, Mr McMaster claimed he was one of a few workers sacked because they had raised a series of safety concerns with management, including exposure to carbon monoxide, diesel particulate and other harmful vehicle emissions, as well alleged incidents of unsafe loading practices where unsecured loads had dropped.

Qube contested Mr McMaster was sacked because of an incident where he refused to upgrade his shift from a G3 stevedore to a G5, where he would be effectively filling in for his manager.

Mr McMaster won his initial case with the judge agreeing he had refused the upgraded shift in part because of his safety concerns, but then lost on appeal in 2016 when the full bench of the court ruled he did not have the right to refuse the shift. Qube also gave evidence that they had addressed staff safety concerns. 

Worksafe investigation

The Federal Court noted there was a 2012 Worksafe investigation into the workers’ exposure to vehicle emissions on board the Spirit of Tasmania, which resulted in the publication of a safety alert containing a procedure for the management of intermittent exposure to the emissions.

The standard required that where employees felt they were impacted by emissions they should report the concern to the shift manager and leave the work area. In the 2015 case, the court heard this had happened at least three times on Mr McMaster’s shifts.

SBS News has contacted Qube for comment. 

A spokesman for the Spirit of Tasmania said that given the current investigation into the horses' deaths it would be inappropriate to comment. 

Biosecurity Tasmania within the state’s Department of Primary Industries is leading the investigation, which also involves the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. SBS also contacted the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries for comment.

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