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Fears for safety at dry cleaners

Work Safety Commissioner Mark McCabe.

Work Safety Commissioner Mark McCabe. Photo: Karleen Minney

Safety inspectors have uncovered a shocking rate of dangerous work practices in the territory's dry cleaning stores and have already issued 60 notices for safety breaches in the early stages of an industry-wide crackdown.

Only half a dozen Canberra dry cleaning stores have been inspected so far but WorkSafe ACT says all six are riddled with dangerous electrical, chemical or equipment maintenance problems.

Safety breaches are now being racked up at these stores at much higher numbers than at Canberra's biggest construction site - the enlargement of the Cotter Dam.

Inspectors found more safety problems at those six dry cleaners than they uncovered during a three-month blitz last year at the Cotter Dam project, when they issued 40 notices.

Work Safety Commissioner Mark McCabe said the breaches potentially made the dry cleaning industry a worse work-safety offender than the construction sector, which had been the subject of intense scrutiny after several deaths and an ACT Government inquiry last year.

The work-safety watchdog was in the early stages of its crackdown on dry cleaning stores after a near-fatal carbon monoxide leak in Woden Plaza earlier this month, when the toxic gas leaked from a boiler inside a dry cleaning store in Bonner House.

The colourless and odourless gas was thought to have flowed up through an air-conditioning unit and into a neighbouring alterations store.

Two workers in the alterations store collapsed, as well as an employee of the dry cleaning business and a security guard who was trying to help.

Mr McCabe said that early investigations showed the boiler was faulty and had not been maintained properly.

He said the findings at the Woden dry cleaning store appeared to set the tone for the rest of the industry.

''I'd like to say [it has been a surprise], but this is why we did this, because when we looked at the company at Woden, we were pretty appalled,'' Mr McCabe said.

Inspectors fear the small, confined spaces of most dry cleaning stores put employees and customers at heightened risk.

Out of the six dry cleaners audited in recent weeks, two stop-work orders have been issued, along with more than 50 improvement notices.

The worst dry cleaner had 17 safety problems identified, and the best had six.

To put that into perspective, the watchdog handed out only 415 notices during the entire 2011-12 financial year following 2000 visits.

About 20 dry cleaners in total will be inspected, and Mr McCabe has warned the industry to ''get their houses in order'' or risk fines of up to $250,000 through the courts, or $3600 on-the-spot fines.

''I'm appalled at what we're finding,'' Mr McCabe said. ''To be frank, I think it's because they haven't been closely regulated for some time.

''This is an area that has just flown under the radar … so I think a lot of bad practices have crept in,'' he said.

The problems revolve largely around electrical systems, the storage and labelling of dangerous chemicals and the maintenance of plant and equipment.

The last audit of dry cleaners was carried out in 2005 by WorkSafe's predecessor, WorkCover. It looked at 25 businesses and issued 17 notices, a relatively small amount.

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