Design faults, compounded by a failure to carry out a series of simple checks, have led to an Essex chemical company being hit with a £1.2 million fine following an explosion in its factory.
The blast at the West Thurrock site of Industrial Chemicals Ltd involved a hydrochloric acid burner and took place in September 2013. Investigation by the HSE and the Environment Agency found that workers in the plant had diverted the vent gas from the burner to the plant's emergency scrubber. This vent gas therefore came into contact with oxygen or chlorine, forming a volatile mixture that exploded when it found an ignition source. The HSE prosecuted, and the Environment Agency served a COMAH prohibition notice.
Fortunately the explosion resulted in only two minor injuries: one worker suffered a caustic burn and another had a grazed knee. Windows were rattled in surrounding houses, but the main damage was in the plant itself, with a tank completely destroyed.
This case illustrates the current tendency for courts to judge cases on the risk created rather than the damage done, and to pass very heavy sentences even when an incident has resulted in relatively little damage or injury.
After the hearing, the HSE Inspector said: "The investigation has shown that the potential for an explosive atmosphere had not been identified during the design, construction or commissioning of the plant. This incident could have been avoided if simple checks had been carried out. Dutyholders should be aware that the HSE will not hesitate to take appropriate action against those that fall below the required standard."