The failed implosion of the old Canberra Hospital buildings on Sunday 13 July 1997 resulted in an explosion which blasted masonry and steel debris beyond the 200 metre exclusion zone to where thousands of spectators stood watching on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin. A young spectator, Katie Bender, was killed instantly when struck by a fragment of that debris.
At the Bender Inquest the Coroner, Mr Shane Madden, described the implosion project as having failed systemically. He attributed the failure to:
- the Project Manager’s and contractors’ lack of appropriate competencies;
- the absence of input from independent engineers and explosives experts;
- inappropriate action by the ACT Chief Minister’s Office and Department in promoting the implosion as a public event; and
- failure of the regulatory agencies to properly discharge their functions.
The Coroner documented a litany of failures and inadequacies on the part of all the contractors and government bodies involved. Key decisions were poorly informed and inappropriate. Necessary actions were omitted or poorly implemented. Established safety procedures were followed inadequately, incorrectly or not at all.
It is clear, in retrospect, that the wholesale underestimation of the risk to public safety was a significant factor in this litany of failures. The public safety risk inherent in the implosion project as it was implemented, was unrecognized, discounted or underestimated by all the parties involved at all stages of the project.
This study, with the great benefit of hindsight, examines why this occurred and how it affected the role of ACT WorkCover and those inspectors directly involved. Specifically it examines how the particular circumstances of the implosion project combined with the situation and practice of WorkCover to influence the inspectors’ assessment of the inherent risks and the exercise of their regulatory enforcement powers.
Healy, Patricia. 2015. ACT WorkCover and the Failed 1997 Implosion: A Case Study of the Role of the Inspectorate. NRCOHSR Working Paper 91, Regulatory Institutions Network.
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