Until Ron Salter was found to have killed a man through carelessness, he was a self-made, working class Kiwi hero.
He’s still a self-made working class Kiwi but it’s hard to be a hero when you’ve got blood on your hands.
Jamey Lee Bowring, 24, was killed while working at the business Salter spent his life building from nothing.
Salter’s Cartage Limited has operated for 38 years, carrying waste fuel – and other waste – and then finding ways to make money out of it.
Some of that fuel was stored in Tank 20 at Salter’s yard in Wiri, South Auckland. Bowring was atop that tank welding when the fumes inside exploded and caused his death.
And today was Salter’s day to pay.
Today was the Manukau District Court’s answer to Salter’s guilty plea to 12 charges relating to the death.
Salter told the Herald that Bowring’s death has extracted its own payment since the accident and it won’t stop anytime soon.
“There were mistakes and I have got to pay the ledger.”
It should be clear that Salter acknowledges Bowring’s death left others in far deeper grief.
He knows that, and is clear that none of what he and his family have gone through can be measured against the loss of a child.
Bowring’s mum read a statement to the court, ahead of sentencing, saying her son was “so full of life … he was our everything”.
She also said: “Ronald Salter you have taken all our happiness and dreams.”
Accidents are never simple. And, as Worksafe prosecutions tend to find, they aren’t really accidents.
They are carelessness, and sometimes that carelessness is fatal.
The fatal contract
In April 2015, Salter decided he needed new walkways for Tank 28, one of the huge white tanks which held fuel at his business.
The tank is next to the one on which Jamey Bowring was killed.
When the first quote came in higher than he would have liked, Salter turned to Trevor Ackers, who he had known for about 20 years.
They knew each other through truck racing and, when Ackers set up Race Works Ltd about 15 years ago, one of his first jobs came from Salter.
They have stayed in touch and Salter says he “always pushed any work” he could towards Ackers.
That wasn’t just racing work. Ackers had installed walkways at Salter’s yard about a decade earlier, so he knew the job on which he offered a quote.
The quote came by email in June 2015: “Hi Ron, Quote attached, will start the ball rolling immediately if accepted, cheers Trev.”
Two hours later, Salter accepted, pushing another job towards Ackers.
They met at Salter’s site and Ackers ran through his plan. Rather than run a walkway right up Tank 28, he suggested going up the shorter Tank 20 and climbing from that.
The design was agreed, as was the deal. There was no paperwork spelling out the contract, no specific warnings about the site and – as Worksafe said in court – “no health and safety systems to be followed by Race Works in relation to its employees, contractors and subcontractors”.
Ackers was a one-man-band who had done similar work on the site before. Salter didn’t really know how Ackers planned to do his job – he simply hired someone and left them to it.
As both would find, rules are rules and the law is not forgiving.
Salter left for the US, where he has a motorhome, at the end of July and returned a month later.
By then, Ackers had already spent a day at the yard, taking his partner Sarah Ferguson – the mother of the young man who later died – to help.
That day, August 13, saw Ackers and Ferguson carry out extensive “hot work” in the fume-filled yard. That “hot work” included using a grinder – which meant sparks – and welding.
The job wasn’t finished that day, and needed a crane. When Salter returned from the US, he booked a crane for September 15 and Ackers headed back to finish the job.
This time, he took his partner’s son, Jamey Bowring, who had another job but took a sick day to work with Ackers.
Bowring had some experience welding, but nothing as complicated as knowing what permits were needed and how they were gained.
Ackers and Bowring arrived around 10.30am. There was no sign-in, they just headed back to where Ackers and Bowring’s mum had worked a month earlier. Ackers talked Bowring through the job, leaving 23 minutes later.
Bowring got on with it, without supervision, and saw his mum’s partner again when he returned at 12.39pm. Ackers was gone again at 1.08pm and returned 10 minutes later.
He wasn’t on the tank with Bowring at 1.36pm when it exploded. Had he been, it is extremely likely he, too, would have died.
How Jamey died
When Jamey Bowring was killed, he was welding on a 9-metre high tank filled with fumes similar to those which would be created by a mix of petrol and kerosene.
Salter started his business in 1979 but even then government and industry practice notes spelled out the dangers of “hot work” around vapours. Rules and regulations around cleaning tanks, releasing vapours and using properly qualified people were issued in 1973, 1988, 2006 and 2009.
Failure to take those precautions meant Bowring was fatally exposed when perched atop the tank, welding steel containing the dregs of fuel and volatile fumes.
When measured after the accident, it was found to have a flash point of around 17.5C. A “flash point” is the lowest temperature at which something will ignite if given an ignition source.
At the time Bowring was welding, the flash point was likely much lower because the explosion – when it came – blew the 450kg lid off the tank, burning off vapours and letting in fresh air.
It acted like a cannon, shooting the lid high into to the air and down Bolderwood Place, where it landed 100m away with an enormous crash.
Bowring was thrown 130m through the air, completely out of Salter’s Cartage Limited and into a car yard over the road. He was dead when found, having suffered “multiple blunt force trauma”.
The explosion blasted shrapnel across the neighbourhood. The walkway Ackers had been hired to build was blown to pieces – one section nearly impaled one of Salter’s staff working in the yard while another smashed into a car 200m away.
In the car yard where Bowring was found, 22 vehicles were damaged and eight of them needed to be written off. One of four workers could have been killed by a piece of debris flying past, less than a foot away.
Windows were smashed across the neighbourhood. The roof of a neighbouring company was so damaged it needed complete replacement. More than a dozen staff there were temporarily deafened by the explosion.
The explosion was such the tank was moved 42cm from its foundation and distorted from a circle into an oval shape.
At the time, Salter’s Cartage Limited had 23,000 litres of jet fuel, 22,000 litres of petrol, 86,000 litres of diesel and more than 4000kg of LPG on site. The potential for an even greater disaster was ripe.
‘The windows blew in’
Salter was in his office, which faces much of the yard. “The windows blew in,” he recalls.
With thick, previously aluminium-framed glass shattered across the office, Salter made his way out and along the hallway to reception “and said to the girls ‘ring 111’.”
He grabbed the sheet with staff names listed on it, rang the plant’s siren and went to the front gate to open it for the Fire Service.
As Salter recalls it, that’s when he saw Ackers racing about shouting out: “Where’s Jamey, where’s Jamey?”
Salter: “I said, ‘who the hell is Jamey?’.”
Ackers: “He was on top of the tank welding.”
Salter: “What the f*** were you doing?”
Ackers: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Worksafe initially charged Acker’s company Race Works Limited with a number of breaches of the health and safety laws as Bowring’s employer. The company later pleaded guilty to one charge connected with the accident.
It didn’t take long to discover there was a body in the car yard over the road, and Ackers wanted to go and see his partner’s son.
Salter, that truck driver of many years, stopped him. “I’ve seen accidents before. You want to remember them as they were.”
Salter rang his wife Natalie, who was in Bali with their daughter Alex, telling her: “There has been a terrible accident.”
As the maelstrom eased, there came a slow understanding of what was happening.
Salter says he still can’t understand why Bowring was welding on top of the tank, although his guilty plea to the charges which followed are a concession it would not have happened had legally required systems been in place.
“That point in time has changed my life hugely. It’s something I’ll carry to my grave. I can’t take it back.”
How it began
Ron Salter started his business in 1979. He was 23 and working with his father Tom, who he bought out before long.
They supplied waste oil to Caltex. Back then, they used to buy the waste oil and sell it on but the business changed in time. The waste oil became “hazardous waste” and people started paying Salter to take it away.
As always, he would clean it up and sell it but the business plan boomed when GST came in. There was no sales tax on waste oil and his margins grew. For big customers, he would collect it for free.
Salter was on his way to being King Rat in the rubbish dump of the oil industry.
As a young man he had taken a punt and borrowed $96,000 for a new Mac truck. Before long, he had a fleet of trucks and waste oil was being trucked in from across the country.
Salter was the man who fronted it all. He drove the trucks six days a week, met customers and won new ones. He would shake hands to seal deals and run himself – and likely others – ragged to make sure those promises were kept.
And with it came the yard with the sign out front – Salter’s Cartage Limited. This was the base, where the fuel came and where it was sold – around New Zealand and even across the Pacific.
It had huge tanks to contain waste oil, a boiler to separate the good from the bad and always the fumes. Signs saying “no smoking” seem superfluous in a place that constantly smells like an old, oily rag.
It’s not a dirty business, says Salter. “The oil is meant to be on the inside of the hose.” When he sees someone with oil on their clothing, he jokes: “What are you doing? Stealing my oil?”
Hard graft and sheer, unrelenting, bloodymindedness – those attributes which lie at the root of small- and medium-sized businesses across the country – are what made Salter a success. And with success came wealth.
At some stage, his bank manager called to tell him: “I’ve got to hand you over to corporate” and a private banker. When Salter asked why, the bank manager told him: “Ron, you’ve made it.”
Not that you’d know it from his scuffed, hard-worn work boots.
“It’s grown to be a monster,” he says, “but a good monster. I never thought it would grow to this size.”
There’s now 26 families supported by the business, which has 36 trucks.
Salter talks of the early days when the business was growing and how he started driving trucks at 4am and would drive six days a week. It never really changed – he still drives.
“I love trucks. And I don’t mind driving trucks. I’m more at home driving a truck than driving a computer.”
That’s not to say Salter’s company didn’t have the systems. It did have a system called “Quest” – but what was spelled out in paperwork didn’t generally end up applied on the site.
And there’s the issue – one that plagues New Zealand businesses. We have less red tape than most, meaning setting up your own business is easier than in most other places. When businesses grow, there’s more to it than simply delivering the chosen goods or service.
Salter shouldered the load that came with growth.
“Now I realise you need help as things grow. You can’t run everything yourself.
Unfortunately, I don’t delegate anywhere near as much as I should.”
It’s his baby, this company carrying the family name. And perhaps that’s one reason – just one reason – why he didn’t sell it after Bowring was killed and the full force of the law landed with an almighty crunch.
Salter’s way ahead
After the accident Salter was “pretty down, I have to say”.
He knew he could “collapse the company”, “pay whatever fine” and have “enough to live comfortably”. His wife Natalie wanted him to walk away.
“That would have been the chicken’s way out and I’ve never been a chicken.”
When he thought about quitting, he says it didn’t fix the broken bit inside him that needed fixing. “I wanted to make it right. I could have sold numerous times over the past few years but I need to see this through and make it right for myself and all those who supported me.”
He charged ahead, sometimes blindly. Various halt notices and enforcement demands from Worksafe effectively shut the business, and some of the charges to which Salter has pleaded include operating it when it was meant to be closed.
“The hurdles changed every day,” says Salter. He acknowledges some of the action he faced which disrupted the company was necessary. Other actions – in his opinion – were not.
It rankled that the business was being pulled up on faults when he had spent $11,000 to have a safety audit carried out before the accident happened. The audit identified nothing that needed fixing, he says, but that wasn’t enough for Worksafe.
The engineering bill for the changes identified by Worksafe after the accident was $1.2m alone. There were plenty of other costs, many which he says he didn’t need to incur.
Among those is an engineering scholarship in Bowring’s home town.
If Worksafe thinks things are so bad, he asks, why is his company on call to remove waste fuel from petrol stations when there are accidents or failures?
And while the full weight of the law bore down on Salter’s Cartage Limited, its owner claims others in the industry with similar flaws were able to keep operating with a year’s grace to make improvements.
But someone died here.
Yes, he says, they did. And his voice breaks and the words get a bit choked up.
There were multiple attempts to reach out to Bowring’s family. During an initial call to Ackers it was made clear the family did not want to hear from him. Subsequent attempts through an agent confirmed that.
Rejected by the family, Salter set up the engineering scholarship at Huntly College in memory of Bowring. He hopes it reminds students to avoid the mistakes he made.
Along with Worksafe’s inquiry – and the orders which shut the business down for months – was a police inquiry.
Salter found himself in the basement of the police station in Manukau, cautioned on a charge of having committed manslaughter through criminal negligence, and interviewed by detectives for three-and-a-half hours.
“I walked out of there a broken man. That’s when they take away your dignity. That’s when you think, ‘what am I in for?’, ‘what have I done’. I’ve never gone through anything like that in my life.”
The manslaughter charge was not laid but Salter and his company did face charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act and the Hazardous Substance and New Organisms Act. He pleaded guilty to 12.
How accidents happen
And he understands how accidents happen, having taken “root cause analysis” courses.
It’s not about a single incident – such as the constant puzzle of why Bowring was welding on a tank filled with fumes – but all the other things that lined up to make that possible.
He talks about the “Swiss cheese model” – a theory of risk management which describes safety nets as slices of cheese. If all are in place, then the absence of one safety net doesn’t lead to an accident because others are present.
But when the flaws in each safety net line up, the possibility of an accident is massively heightened.
Worksafe’s charges have it that Bowring went flying through Salter’s Swiss cheese safety net.
“We made mistakes, no two ways about it. I’ll wear that scar for the rest of my life, along with the family. I can’t put it right. Money can’t put it right.
“It happened on my site. That’s what the judge said – that I should have known there was a chance of him welding, that we should have had procedures.”
The turmoil of the investigation, the responsibility for Bowring’s death and bringing his business up to standard, exacted a toll on Salter and his family.
But he wouldn’t sell, determined to find a way out of the chaotic, deadly mess that cost Bowring his place.
And, while doing that, Salter was finding a way to shoulder responsibility for his role. He and Natalie have been married for 32 years so she joined him on the journey whether she liked it or not. “I turned into a different person. [Natalie] wanted the old Ron Salter back.
“She wanted me to retire and for us to have a life again. But I needed to correct everything that was here, physically and emotionally.”
Sentencing will not bring an end to it. Truck driver, working class Kiwi – Salter is more comfortable talking about the ongoing physical work to keep the site compliant but that’s not all he’s saying.
During the interview, Salter chokes on words while speaking, tears well up in his eyes and sometimes he just stops until he can speak again.
“People will never understand how much pain it actually causes to everyone. Not just the victims but everyone.”
Again, Salter feels the need to explain that he is not putting his anguish before – or even alongside that – of Bowring’s family.
Jamey’s mum won’t have it. Ferguson told the Manukau District Court hearing she didn’t believe Salter’s grief, claiming he was crying “crocodile tears” and had “portrayed himself as a victim”.
“We will forever have an empty chair at the dinner table and an unopened present under the Christmas tree.”
Salter urges other small- and medium-business owners – those who grew as his company did – to make the changes needed to be compliant with the law. It’s expensive, and can seem like a sea of red tape, but the consequences of not doing so are awful.
“I’m proud of this company,” he says. “I’m just not proud of that day.”
Source : New Zealand Herald