£1.2m fine for chemical company after explosion

A chemicals company has been fined £1.2m following an explosion at its site at West Thurrock.

Two people suffered minor injuries following the blast, which happened during the operation of the hydrochloric acid (HCl) burner on 26 September 2013.

Chelmsford Crown Court heard that the newly installed HCl burner being used by Industrial Chemicals Limited had only been used a handful of times when the explosion occurred. The plant site had been under construction for several months and was undergoing commissioning. Two workers were injured; one suffered a grazed knee from a breeze block dislodged from the wall of the control room and the other a minor caustic burn caused by a drip from the plant in the minutes following the explosion. The explosion effectively destroyed a tank and displaced a scrubber column upwards and at an angle.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), acting as part of the COMAH competent authority, found that in an attempt to the address risks from chlorine, the company routed the vent gas containing mostly hydrogen through to the plant emergency scrubber where it was able to come into contact with oxygen or chlorine which found an ignition source and then exploded.

Industrial Chemicals Limited of Stoneness Road, West Thurrrock pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 4 of the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999, was fined £1.2 million and ordered to pay costs of £35,854.

Speaking after the hearing 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. “Duty holders should be aware that HSE will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action against those that fall below the require standard.”

COMAH Prohibition Notice was served following this incident.

Phoenix comments:

The Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Regulations ensure that businesses:

  • Take all necessary measures to prevent major accidents involving dangerous substances
  • Limit the consequences to people and the environment of any major accidents which do occur

COMAH applies mainly to the chemical industry, but also to some storage activities, explosives and nuclear sites, and other industries where the threshold quantities of dangerous substances identified in the Regulations are kept or used. This is a tragic incident; the force of the blast was reported as being felt as far as residents in Essex and Kent.