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Ex-director of gas firm fined over 2015 laboratory blast that killed chemist

SINGAPORE: A former executive director of an industrial gas company was fined S$45,000 on Friday (Apr 29) for his part in a laboratory explosion that killed a chemist in 2015.

Gary Choo Pu Chang, 64, was the executive director of Leeden National Oxygen (LNOX), a firm that produces and sells specialty gases. His responsibilities included overseeing the safe operation of the laboratory.

The fatal explosion at the firm's Tanjong Kling premises on Oct 12, 2015 killed 30-year-old Lim Siaw Chian, who had just returned to work after giving birth.

Choo resigned on Aug 12, 2015, before the incident happened, but admitted to not establishing safe work procedures that could have prevented the blast.

Earlier this week, he pleaded guilty to one charge of failing to take measures to ensure the safety and health of his employees at work.

Last year, LNOX and the firm's CEO Steven Tham Weng Cheong were fined S$340,000 and S$45,000 respectively for similar offences.

Ms Lim was carrying out gas analysis on a cylinder when a series of explosions broke out at 21 Tanjong Kling Road on the day of the incident.

She was killed instantly. Three of her colleagues in the lab and four other employees were hurt as well. Their injuries included brain haemorrhage, lacerations and abrasions.

In closed-circuit television footage of the incident, Ms Lim was last seen touching a regulatory valve assembly connected to a gas cylinder before the video went black.

The primary failure was found to be an unqualified weld joint in the bullet stem of the regulatory valve assembly, that had been modified and not properly checked before use.

As a result, a flammable methane-oxygen-nitrogen mix leaked from the equipment when the cylinder was being tested and was likely ignited by frictional heat.

Investigations found that during the time Choo oversaw the laboratory, LNOX did not have any system for tracking and maintaining regulatory valve assemblies.

No records were kept of when the regulatory valve assemblies were bought, who were their suppliers, which ones were modified and whether the modifications were approved.

Instead, the equipment was "randomly kept" in a toolbox cabinet and not individually accounted for, stated court documents. There was also no periodic testing or maintenance.

Investigations also found that there was no system in place for the accurate tracking of gas cylinders, including their contents.

Additionally, court documents stated that a safety manager discovered in October 2014 that the gas leakage indication lights of the gas detection system would blink occasionally without any obvious triggers, and the system was therefore not reliable.

Around May 2015, the manager received a quotation for his proposal to revamp the entire gas detection system at LNOX.

He showed Choo the proposal, but was informed that LNOX did not have the budget for this and was told to push the proposal in the following year. The fatal blast happened before the next year's budget process.

Ministry of Manpower prosecutor Khong Zi-wei sought a fine of S$45,000 to S$60,000, arguing that Choo's culpability was higher than Tham's as he had "significantly more experience" in gas manufacturing and worked more closely with laboratory operations.

Choo was previously the deputy managing director of National Oxygen, which merged with Leeden to form LNOX on Oct 1, 2014. He also oversaw the laboratory in that capacity.

"While actual harm did not take place during the accused's tenure, the potential for harm was always present, and it was only fortuitous for the accused that this harm did not materialise until after his resignation," said Mr Khong.

Defence lawyer Gregory Ong had argued that his client was less culpable than Tham, and said Choo could not be expected to "micro-manage" every LNOX department under his charge.

Choo could have been jailed for up to two years, fined up to S$200,000 or both for failing to take necessary measures to ensure the safety and health of employees.

Source: CNA/dv(ta)


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