HSE receives Crown Censure after lab injury

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has accepted a Crown Censure after a worker suffered serious burns at HSE’s Laboratory in Buxton.

The incident happened on 4 October 2016 while testing a prototype hydrogen storage vessel. A connector failed as the vessel was being filled, some hydrogen escaped under pressure and it ignited, injuring the nearby HSE employee. He has since returned to work.

HM Inspectors of Health and Safety investigated the incident and served a Crown Improvement Notice requiring HSE to provide a system of work for proof testing and leak testing an assembled hydrogen line and test tank. This is to ensure the safety of employees and other people in the vicinity so far as is reasonable. HSE complied with the Notice. As a Government body, HSE cannot face prosecution. A Crown Censure is the maximum sanction a government body can receive. There is no financial penalty, but once accepted, it is officially recorded as a failure to meet the standards set out in law. By accepting the Crown Censure, HSE admitted to breaching its duty under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

HM Inspectors concluded that the pressure testing went wrong because of failure to assess, plan, manage and control a well-known risk of death or serious injury. The investigation team found that the incident could have been prevented using recognised control measures, available in long-standing published guidance. Director of field operations, Samantha Peace said:

“The Act is not intended to stop people from doing work that may be inherently dangerous, such as pressure testing. It is about ensuring that where work involves danger then this is reduced as much as it properly can be. In this case, HSE bear this responsibility as an employer. They fell below the required standard and as the failings exposed workers to the risk of death or serious injury, a Crown Censure is the right course of action."

Richard Judge, chief executive of HSE said:

“On behalf of my colleagues...I very much regret this incident ... We did not meet the standards we expect of others and that is deeply disappointing. We took early action to resolve the immediate issues identified by the regulatory and internal investigations. In line with our spirit of continuous improvement, we are using the findings from the investigations as an opportunity to learn and to do significantly better.”

Phoenix comments:

This interesting case highlights the need for progress and experimental processes, to balance the risk with effective controls. The main issue was the failure to plan for the testing incident and take precautions. It reinforces the importance of risk assessments within organisations.