Lack of a confined space system results in death and massive fine
Sheffield Forgemasters was fined £245,000 (inc. costs) on 19 December 2013 for safety failings that led to an employee dying of carbon dioxide asphyxiation after the cellar in which he was working filled with the gas.
The circumstances were:
The accident occurred during work in an underground drawpit and cellar on 30th May 2008.
There was no risk assessment by Sheffield Forgemasters for this task.
There was no safe system of work for this task.
The firm had failed to provide any rescue equipment for either the cellar or the drawpit.
In addition, there was no secure way to isolate the carbon dioxide fire system while work was going on in the cellar.
Labourer Brian Wilkins, was using a petrol-driven saw to cut through redundant cable in the underground electrical drawpit.
He then went to carry out the rest of the job in the switchroom cellar, which was only accessible by lifting a manhole cover and dropping down a ladder.
The smoke sensor was tripped, which then prompted the release of carbon dioxide from the fire extinguishing system, flooding the area.
The petrol-driven saw in the switchroom cellar was the most likely cause of the activation of the smoke sensor
Colleagues heard the carbon dioxide warning alarms sounding from the cellar.
A supervisor and other workmates rushed to help, with several of them unsuccessfully trying to get down the ladder from the manhole to rescue Mr Wilkins.
They were themselves almost overcome by the fast-acting gas.
The HSE Inspector said:
“This was a very upsetting incident that resulted in the needless death of Mr Wilkins. It could have been an even worse tragedy as it was pure chance that another four workers who entered the cellar in a desperate bid to save their colleague did not also perish. Exposure to between 10-15 per cent of carbon dioxide in air for more than a minute causes drowsiness and unconsciousness. Exposure to 17-30 per cent in air is fatal is less than one minute. Carbon dioxide is poisonous even if there is an otherwise sufficient supply of oxygen. The risks associated with confined spaces are well known in industry and there is an entire set of regulations dealing with controlling the risks associated with them. Multiple fatalities do occur when one person gets into difficulty in such a space and then the rescuers are similarly overcome. Sheffield Forgemasters had given no thought to the risks associated with the task being undertaken by Mr Wilkins, nor had they provided emergency rescue equipment. This case shows how important it is for companies to effectively risk assess work activities, looking at how the work will be carried out and in what circumstances.”