A suspected faulty water pipe led to more than 40 workers from the Baiada Poultry factory in Beresfield being hospitalised on Monday after they were exposed to chlorine dioxide.
The Environmental Protection Authority, the meat packers union and Baiada have all launched investigations into the cause of the exposure, believed to have occurred after a fault with the system used to keep the factory’s assembly line clean.
It is understood to have caused workers to be sprayed with the chlorine solution, leading to complaints of nausea, irritated throats and eyes, and breathing difficulties.
More than 200 employees at the factory were evacuated at about 8.30am after workers reacted to the chemical, and 43 were transported to three hospitals across the Hunter.
Paramedics and Fire and Rescue both attended the factory, treating a number of workers at the site.
Inspector Brett Crotty from Fire and Rescue NSW said the cause of the exposure was a “chlorine solution used to disinfect the assembly line and keep everything clean”.
“There’s one tank with chlorine, and one tank with water, they both go through a pipe and mix together to dilute the chlorine, then they’re sprayed over the assembly line,” he said.
“There has been either a blockage or a fault in the water tank [which has] meant that chlorine has sprayed out over the assembly line.
“It wouldn’t have been for a long time, you know pretty quick if you come into contact with a straight disinfectant.”
Baiada could not confirm how many staff were affected or what had caused the malfunction, a spokesman saying that staff were being “monitored”.
“Our concern is for the well-being of our staff, and we will be conducting a thorough investigation of the cause of the leak,” the spokesman said.
“In the coming days we will be able to provide more information on what has occurred.”
Unaffected staff returned to work after the site was declared safe.
The Environmental Protection Authority visited the site after the evacuation, and has since requested a detailed incident report from Baiada as part of its investigation into the incident.
A spokesperson confirmed that chlorine dioxide was the chemical that leaked at the Beresfield plant.
“Once the site was declared safe by NSW Fire and Rescue HAZMAT crews, EPA officers carried out an inspection of the premises to determine the extent of environmental impacts,” the spokesperson said.
“No offsite impacts were identified.”
Hunter New England Health said all 43 workers, who were taken to Calvary Mater, Maitland and John Hunter hospitals, were in a stable condition.
By about 4.30pm 33 of them were still hospitalised.
A spokeswoman for health saying their status was being “reviewed” and could not confirm whether any would stay overnight.
Neighbours said they did not hear an alarm prior to the evacuation and were not notified by anyone from Baiada of the chemical leak, which is being investigated by the Environment Protection Authority.
On Monday afternoon, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union said that its officers were also on site “investigating the incident”.
Grant Courtney from the union said union officers had been at the site on Monday, and would conduct interviews with staff on Tuesday.
“We’ll be speaking with them to find out firsthand what happened,” Mr Courtney said.
“At the moment our concern is our member’s health.”
He said the union had been unable to confirm a number of details from the company, including how many people had been hospitalised.
“All they have said is that they have complied with their health and safety obligations, but we’ll be conducting our own investigations,” he said.
According to the World Health Organisation, chlorine dioxide can be used as a disinfectant agent or for treating water.
It exists as a gas at room temperature but can become explosive when its concentration in the air is greater than 10 per cent.