A Doncaster solvent company has been fined after an unsafe decanting operation caused a huge fire that engulfed its Harworth base. Employees were transferring highly flammable toluene from a bulk container into a smaller drum, ahead of the incident at Solvents With Safety Ltd. They were attempting to fill the drum using a pipe from the container but the pipe they used was too short. It meant dropping the liquid from the pipe into the drum, a process called ‘splash filling’ that is known to generate static electricity – a potential ignition source.
Doncaster Magistrates’ Court heard that the flash point of toluene is just 4 degrees. So on a “hot” June evening when the process took place, the toluene would have had a flammable vapour over its surface. The build-up of static electricity in the drum is thought to have ignited the vapour and sparked a fire that quickly took hold and spread to other containers of flammable and dangerous solvent mixtures at the site, some of which exploded.
These are risks that would have been picked up had a DSEAR assessment been carried out by a competent person. We see all too often a failure in businesses handling and processing flammable materials – a lack of understanding of the risks of a flammable/explosive mixture developing and how easily these can be ignited.
On this occasion seven workers were present at the time, and thankfully all managed to escape unharmed after a quick-thinking supervisor ordered them to evacuate the site and called the emergency services. The initial blaze was described as escalating to a raging inferno within minutes; as is normally the case where highly flammable solvents are involved.
The HSE investigation found the ‘splash fill’ method was wholly inappropriate and posed a clear risk that wasn’t properly assessed. Worker safety was further compromised by the fact that the pipe used to fill the container wasn’t earthed, and because the personal protective equipment worn by the workers wasn’t anti-static and was therefore unsuitable. We know that a lack of control of static gets overlooked and therefore provides the source of ignition needed.
The court was informed that HSE had, in previous years, written twice to Solvents With Safety to warn of the dangers of splash filling containers. The company pleaded guilty to breaching the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR) and was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £6,860 in costs.
The HSE inspector prosecuting the case commented that the workforce were extremely lucky to escape unharmed from this incident. The size and scale of the fire was immense – it took hold in minutes and caused total devastation to the company’s premises. Lives were needlessly put at risk because there would have been no blaze at all had the company taken more care with the decanting operation. The method they used was fraught with risk to say the least, and the generation of static charge could have been prevented by the provision of a longer filling pipe to avoid splash filling. This was a reasonably practicable measure to take, and the company was well aware of the dangers because they had previous HSE advice.
A DSEAR assessment might seem an unnecessary expense to some businesses but this case shows what can go wrong and the importance of ensuring the correct risk controls measures are in place. As the HSE has emphasised; companies working with dangerous substances must take extreme care at all times and in all aspects of their operations; as failures can easily lead to the unthinkable in your business.