Saturday 18 February 2012

Director “lied” during factory explosion trial

A judge has slammed the boss of a gas-supply firm for lying throughout his trial for safety failings, following an explosion at a factory in St Helens.

John Webster, who is managing director of North West Gases Ltd, was found guilty of failing to protect himself and workers following a trial at Liverpool Crown Court. The prosecution relates to an explosion at the firm’s factory on 10 April 2008.

On the day of the incident, Webster and another worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, were attempting to remove a valve on a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder, which the company produced for a range of uses, including powering forklift trucks. They failed to ensure that the cylinder was empty and when they unscrewed the valve, gas escaped into the workshop. When Webster attempted to put a new valve on the cylinder, the gas ignited and caused an explosion. Webster’s clothes were set on fire, and the other worker was thrown across the building. Both suffered serious burns to their hands, face, and legs. They were taken to a specialist burns unit and both suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. A third employee suffered minor injuries during the explosion.

HSE inspector Warren Pennington told SHP that Webster claimed he instructed his colleague to ensure that the cylinder was empty. This version of events was disputed by the injured worker who said that Webster was aware that the gas hadn’t been drained, and they heard it escaping when they loosened the valve.

Inspector Pennington explained that Webster should have removed the gas before making alterations to the cylinder. He and his colleague continued with the work despite the sound of the gas escaping, and gave no consideration to the multiple potential ignition sources in the workshop. “Mr Webster’s failure to carry out even the most basic of safety checks led to what was an entirely preventable incident,” said inspector Pennington. “He failed to ensure that the cylinder was empty and didn’t check for any potential sources of ignition in the building, any of which could have caused this explosion. In this case, the fact that no one was killed was simply down to luck.”

On 13 February, Webster was found guilty of breaching s7 of the HSWA 1974 and was fined £22,500. He was also ordered to pay £2500 towards costs. In delivering his sentence, Judge Morrow said: “The jury rejected your evidence because they must have been sure your were lying, as I am sure that you were lying. The only conclusion I can come to is the reason for replacing the valve was commercially motivated, though the benefit can’t have been very great.”

Webster had no previous convictions. He told the court that the factory was destroyed by the explosion and has not been rebuilt due to an ongoing dispute with his insurance provider

Source: SHP

Thursday 9 February 2012

Company failed to check interlocks

A worker at a fencing manufacturer suffered serious arm injuries when a machine started moving unexpectedly while he was reaching inside to repair a fault.

The worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, was working at Betafence Ltd’s factory in Shepcote Lane, Sheffield when the incident took place on 7 August 2009. He was operating a wire-drawing machine, which thins wire so it can be used as fencing.

The line of wire often broke when it passed through the machine, at which point the operator was required to isolate the machine and weld the wire back together. In order to access the wire, he needed to take out a moveable guard, which was fitted with an interlocking device designed to isolate the machine when the guard is removed.

However, when the worker leant into the machine and withdrew the guard the interlock failed to cut the power to the block, and the machine started moving unexpectedly. His right arm was pulled through the rotating block and he suffered a dislocated elbow, compound fractures to his lower arm, and parts of his skin were ripped off. He subsequently needed three skin grafts and two metal plates have been fitted into his forearm. He has been unable to return to work owing to his injuries.

HSE inspector Jill Thompson told SHP that the company regularly checked to see if the guards were in place, but failed to test whether the interlocks were operational. She said: “This is an example of how a simple failure of a safety switch can result in life-changing injuries. Had the company included safety-switch checking as part of the guard-checking system, this incident would probably have been avoided. “Prevention of access to moving parts of machinery is a clear duty upon employers and includes making sure that safety features of machines are maintained effectively.”

Betafence appeared at Sheffield Magistrates’ Court on 3 February and pleaded guilty to breaching reg.11(1) of PUWER 1998. It was fined £12,000 and ordered to pay £3762 in costs.

In mitigation, the company said it removed the machine from service immediately and subsequently installed a relay on each to monitor the state of the interlocks. It cooperated with the investigation and entered an early guilty plea.

In July 2003, the company was fined £7000 for breaching s2(1) of the HSWA 1974 after a worker was injured while working on a similar machine at the same factory.