Robert Spicer gives an overview on a collection of chemical-related health and safety prosecutions.

This selection of chemical-related health and safety prosecutions illustrates how employees have been put at high risk when training has been inadequate or missing or risk assessments have not been adequately carried out.

Solvent leak

Abbott Laboratories was fined £12,000 after a serious chemical leak posed the risk of an explosion.

The following summarises significant points of the case.

  • In November 2004, at the company's plant in Queenborough, Kent, workers were using a tank to separate water from heptane. The water sank to the bottom of the tank and flowed out through a series of pipes. When all the water had drained, a pneumatic valve would close to stop the heptane escaping.

  • The exit pipe and the valve became blocked with solids. Workers took the pipes apart to access the valve and cleared the blockage with a plastic rod. The blockage was successfully cleared but the valve was stuck open. This allowed 3500 litres of heptane to leak onto the floor of the plant, forming a highly flammable vapour.

  • The heptane escaped through a floor drain, taking half an hour to do so.

  • Several mistakes were made during the spill, including the fact that workers were put at risk when they returned to the scene to try to stop the leak. The building was not evacuated.

  • The company had no guidelines on how to deal with a blocked pipe despite the fact that it had become blocked several times before. No risk assessment had been carried out in relation to the unblocking method. Such an assessment would have revealed an unacceptably high risk of a heptane leak.

Points in mitigation

  1. The company had replaced the pneumatic valve with a manual one to reduce the risk of failure.

  2. Written procedures on how to act in the event of a similar incident had also been introduced.

Fines

The following fines were imposed at Sittingbourne Magistrates' Court, October 2006.

  1. £10,000 for a breach of s.2(1) the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 (HSWA) for failing to ensure the health and safety of employees.

  2. £2000 under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995.

Comment

After the case, a spokesperson for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was reported to pointed out that employees handling dangerous materials not only require clear operating instructions under normal circumstances, but also need to know what action to take if the operation should move away from these conditions. Employers should also have appropriate and well-practised measures in place to deal with the consequences of a release.

Acid explosion

The City of Bristol College was fined following an incident in which a tutor suffered severe burns in an acid explosion.

The following summarises significant points of the case.

  • Gary Baird, a welding tutor at the college, had regularly mixed nital, a substance used to test a weld's durability. Nital was made by mixing nitric acid and ethanol. This is potentially explosive if the concentration of acid exceeds 10%.

  • On the day of the incident, 2 May 2006, he had noticed that the surface of the acid had begun to ripple. The flask containing the acid exploded and he was showered with concentrated nitric acid and fragments of glass.

  • In hospital he was showered for two hours before the acid reaction stopped. He underwent two skin grafts on his forearms and an operation on his hand. His face was left permanently scarred and he did not return to work.

  • The college had not trained Baird on a safe method of mixing the nital and were not aware that he was mixing the chemical at his desk and was unsupervised.

  • There was no Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) statement drawn up. If the college had prepared such a statement, it would have known that certain precautions needed to be taken immediately.

  • The nital should have been mixed in supervised laboratory conditions, in a fume cupboard, by a trained chemist who knew how to guard against explosive incidents and how to use the correct equipment.

Points in mitigation

Since the incident the college had significantly tightened its health and safety systems, and has carried out the appropriate COSHH assessments and inspections.

Fines

At a hearing at Bristol Magistrates' Court, City of Bristol College was fined £14,000 and required to pay £18,000 costs.

Comments

A spokesperson for the HSE commented after the incident that, in this particular case, the City of Bristol College did not ensure that one of its tutors was adequately trained and supervised so that he could safely carry out his work. Without such safety systems, it was often just a matter of time before something went wrong, sometimes with devastating consequences.

The college had admitted it was guilty of failing to train and supervise its staff and had failed to safely store and manage a hazardous substance. The head of employment rights at the University and College Union commented that Gary Baird had been badly injured because of sloppy management and lack of proper concern by his employers. He had never been advised about the safe storage and use of these chemicals. He should not have been given a litre of concentrated nitric acid for this work.

Regulation 6 of the COSHH deals with risk assessment. In summary, it states that where employees are liable to be exposed to hazardous substances during the course of their work, the employer must undertake a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks associated with those exposures. Such assessments must be reviewed regularly or immediately if there are any changes that render the original assessment invalid or where monitoring programmes indicate that it may be necessary. Where five or more persons are employed, the significant findings of the assessment must be recorded as soon as possible after the assessment, together with any control measures implemented to prevent or control exposure to hazardous substances.

Scalding incident

FMC Chemicals Ltd, a multinational chemical company, was fined following an incident in which a worker suffered scalding injuries.

The following summarises the significant points of the case.

  • In June 2008, Dean Moore, a temporary worker at FMC's factory on Merseyside, was unblocking equipment containing lithium chloride, a chemical used in the manufacture of computer batteries.

  • He had not been given suitable training for the work.

  • The substance, which was steam-heated, sprayed over him and caused scalding burns on his neck and shoulders.

  • In May 2007, the HSE had served three improvement notices on FMC following an incident in which a worker suffered burns to his legs during maintenance work.

  • In December 2007, FMC was issued with another six notices requiring safety improvements.

  • Moore stated that he was using steam to unblock the pipes and he assumed that they were all clear when the chemical poured out. He thought that safety measures were in place but they were not.

  • He was left permanently scarred, suffered from depression and was unable to find work.

Fines

In April 2010, Wirral Magistrates' Court fined FMC Chemicals Ltd £13,485 for a breach of s.3 of HSWA for failing to ensure the safety of non-employees, plus £8900 costs.

Comment

An HSE inspector commented after the case that Moore had been allowed to work in an area for which he was not trained. He should not have been there and suffered burns as a consequence.

Last reviewed 1 May 2013