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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Aftermath — Cameron Jones

The former fitter and turner and boiler operator tells PETER BATEMAN about the boiler explosion which left him badly burned and looking to retrain.

Before the accident I was at the Glenbrook steel mill, where they have nine big boilers and three steam turbines. But before you get on the panel to operate solo – five computers at once – you’ve got be under direct supervision for two years. All four trainee positions were taken, and there were still three in line ahead of me. So I took a pay cut to move to a meat plant, where in 12 months I would’ve completed my last certificate. The plan after that was to join my father in the big L&G plant in Darwin.

At the meat plant I was employed as a boiler operator/maintainer. I’m qualified in energy and chemical operations (plant and machinery) to level 3 but I’m also a fitter and turner by trade.

The day of the accident I’d received an email setting out what it was going to cost me to do my last certificate – provided I gained employment, because I was about to finish my 90-day trial. I already had the qualifications required by the meat plant, but the boiler they had would have enabled me to get the next one above.


They were trying to run the boiler on a fuel source it hadn’t been tuned for – a mix of coal and wood pellets. It needed to be recalibrated by a specialist. The guy I worked beside quit because of how dangerous it was getting. It was designed to run on quite large pieces of coal, hand sized, but they were running wood pellets through the coal. The pellets were quite small and the vacuum from the boiler just pulled the wood through all the cracks in the coal. It would self-feed, you couldn’t slow it down. Wood’s got so much more energy, it burns heaps hotter.

I started the week early to hose down all the coal dust on the walls. The boiler was self-feeding, it pulled all the little bits of wood and coal behind the spreader. It all just fell in front of the door. It was sitting there smouldering, not quite on the fire plate, waiting for oxygen.

I opened the door. It needed oxygen so it sucked like a motherfucker, pulled all that coal dust around me inside. First it imploded, then it exploded.

My old man reckons I would’ve heard the oxygen go flying past my ears as it was sucked in, so instinctively I spun around, that’s the only reason I saved my face.


It was like standing behind a 747 engine, a plume of fucken flames, it was coming down from 600 degrees. I ran down past the office, out the back and stood under the safety shower, thinking fuck I’m going to die. Then another voice came in, shut the fuck up, you know what to do, you’ve been trained for this. I knew I had to shut it down, then call for help.

There’s an emergency stop in the operations room. But you’ve got to know the sequence the boiler needs to shut down in. So I was listening for that, trying not to panic, looking at the phone on the wall to ring for help.

Instead I grabbed the RT radio and ran out the front, past a few fires, stood there for a minute, calmed right down. I called for help, the first answer I got was “Is this a joke?”. Then one of the engineers came through and said an ambulance was on the way.

I jumped in the second safety shower. It ran out of water just as the fire truck arrived. Those first two guys, their faces hit the ground when they say me. Wasn’t very reassuring. The two older gents sent them on their way and kicked things into gear. One of them grabbed me a chair. I didn’t realise at the time that I was naked. Everything had been burned off. It was 8pm on a winter’s night and freezing. One said sit down but don’t lean back, the other held his jacket around me but an inch off me, so it wasn’t touching but keeping me warm.

I think it was 45 minutes before the ambulance arrived. They said they were getting the stretcher, I said can’t I walk to get this show moving? Had an argument with the ambulance officer because I was trying to ring my mum to tell her where to collect the body. As I stood up I noticed what looked like plastic shopping bags draped off both forearms. Where the fuck did I pick these up from? Then it dawned on me, that was my skin melting off my arms. That’s when I realised I mightn’t see sunrise tomorrow. Then the shock kicked in and everything was blank. I woke up in the chopper.


I was five weeks in an induced coma with a breathing unit, in a sealed room with nurses in attendance 24 hours a day. At the end of the fifth week they woke me up. I spent another week in intensive care. I don’t remember much other than the glory of lemonade iceblocks which the nurse was sneaking me – absolute gold because I’d been fed through a tube.

Then I went to the burns unit for the next six weeks to learn how to toilet, shower, eat, drink, roll over, all those things. I was happy to be alive.

I had 18 surgeries on my hands. They had to grow skin on the back of my head as there was nowhere to take skin from for grafts.

I was all shits and giggles when I woke up, until I saw my hands. At the back of my hands there’s a seam like when you sew clothes together. It looks like someone’s chopped my hands off with a machete. The hands were clenched up. As a fitter and turner your hands are your life, so I covered my hands and didn’t look at them for two months. They were my major issue. There were lots of others along the way.

I was in Middlemore for three months all up. I had to move in with my mother, otherwise they wouldn’t have let me out so early. A nurse came around every morning to change 24 dressings.


That was my second one since leaving hospital. The first was on my left hand in April last year. They put wires down my fingers which stuck out about 10mm from the tips. Pretty gruesome. They had to break all the fingers, with full skin grafts. The surgery didn’t go as well as hoped, my hand went halfway back to where it was, almost a clenched fist. Now it’s halfway clenched.

The other week they did my right hand (I’m right-handed). There were two good fingers, the rest were all bent. The surgeon put three skin grafts in, no wires, a lot of stitches. I had duck webs between my fingers, he’s taken those out. The skin on my thumb grew straight across to the index finger, halfway up. That’s all cut out. There’s like a hundred stitches in my hand but it’s a lot better than the wire.

I’ve got a weak stomach for looking at bones and shit. Last year, the first time I saw the unwrapped left hand I dry retched and then threw up. Last week when I saw my right hand I thought, well, that’s a bit ugly, but I didn’t feel sick.


I’ve definitely got a new appreciation for the world – what’s important, who I am, how I am with others. I’ve found out who my real friends are.

I was upset about my hands for some time but I moved past that. I probably was a bit depressed, like loss of interest in hobbies and lack of focus. I could only focus for about an hour. All those things add up but I’m not sitting around sad.

I was sitting around because last summer it was too hot for me to go outside. I became quite a night creature. Three-quarters of my body had brand new nerve endings so that the first year they were all dead; and then last year they all were rejuvenated and super sensitive. I was on nerve blockers so I couldn’t feel them.

This year during Covid I got off those pills and for the last six months my nerves have been dealing with life unaided. Now they’re a bit more dull, not so hypersensitive. So far I’m doing better than last year, but we’ll see when Christmas gets here how I deal with the heat.

Once this hand is a bit more healed I can move out of mum’s house, be a bit more independent, start becoming an adult again – doing washing, cooking my own meals, getting some structure back in the day. Then hopefully going to polytech or uni and beginning my retraining.

I’m looking at studying health & safety, or accounting, or psychology. Health and safety is important to me. It was important to me before, but now …


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