A university employee “engulfed in a fireball” during a gas cylinder explosion suffered life-altering injuries including burns and hearing loss.
Steven Newcombe is one of only 12 scientific glassblowers in New Zealand and has been employed at the University of Waikato in Hamiton for about 30 years.
He was just a few days away from retiring when he began the ordinary task of changing an oxygen cylinder outside a science laboratory on July 25 last year when it exploded, the sound so intense it shook equipment many rooms away.
Newcombe’s wife, Yoka, told NZME the incident had changed their lives.
“It was a major event especially in our lives as we live with the effects of it every day.”
This was because Newcombe’s life initially hung in the balance, according to Yoka, who said it should have been an uneventful day.
“Steven went to change the oxygen cylinder as he had done thousands of times before, but this time the high-pressure system exploded.
“The sonic boom and the fireball were intense, causing equipment to shake rooms away.”
She said the explosion caused major permanent damage to Newcombe, who suffered burns and was hospitalised for more than a week.
“It was a day of much distress as the burns treatment and 11-day stay at the hospital was excruciating,” Yoka said.
“After the hospital treatment our days have been consumed with going to medical specialists this has now reduced.
“It was difficult for our children as the hospital was still under Covid rules and they were denied visiting their father who they feared could possibly not make it through,” she said.
Newcombe was the recipient of multiple awards over the years in his role as a glassblower at the university.
WorkSafe was called to the scene and has since charged the university under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 with failing to ensure the safety of Newcombe while at work, namely changing an oxygen cylinder supplying the glassblowing workshop and thereby exposing him to death or serious injury.
A charging document states it was “reasonably practicable” for the university to have developed, implemented and monitored a system to regularly inspect the gas distribution system, as well as train workers in, and monitor compliance of, the safe moving and connecting of gas bottles to the distribution system.
The maximum penalty for the charge is a fine of $1.5 million.
The case was called in the Hamilton District Court last month, when Shaun Metcalfe, counsel representing the university, indicated they were keen to enter into an “enforceable undertaking” with WorkSafe.
Enforceable undertakings are an alternative to a criminal prosecution but are legally binding once they are in place, and support higher standards of work health and safety as well as addressing the harm caused to the victim.
When asked by Judge Tony Couch whether there had been any discussions with WorkSafe yet, Metcalfe said there hadn’t been and that it was just at the “preliminary stage of registering interest”.
After applying, the undertaking would be drafted and agreed on by both parties before it was ultimately approved by WorkSafe.
Judge Couch noted the “glacial pace” at which WorkSafe proceedings moved but called for the matter to be brought back before the court this month.
That hearing was adjourned.
A WorkSafe spokesperson said details of the enforceable undertaking were still underway and likely take a few months to iron out between the parties.
A University of Waikato spokesperson said they could not comment on the matter while it was before the court but said the university takes its obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act seriously.
“We have cooperated fully with Worksafe through this process.”
Belinda Feek is an Open Justice reporter based in Waikato. She has worked at NZME for eight years and been a journalist for 19.