An aerospace company has been fined for safety failings after an Essex worker injured his eye whilst cleaning out a tank containing caustic soda. The man sustained a chemical burn to his eyelid and inside his tear duct after flicking sodium hydroxide crystals into his face at Inflite Engineering Ltd in Chelmsford. He required emergency treatment at hospital, but avoided a more serious injury thanks to prompt and effective action by his workmates.
Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court heard that the employee was standing in a tank containing a solid crystalline material composed largely of solidified sodium hydroxide (caustic soda). Whilst chipping away at the solid crystalline material, his protective mask misted up and as he took it off to clean the visor, some caustic soda crystals flicked onto his eye lid. Had the chemical made contact with his eye it could have caused permanent damage to his vision.
An investigation by the HSE found Inflite Engineering Ltd, which operates sites in Chelmsford, Stansted and Manchester, could and should have done more to prevent the incident and protect the worker. He was not only exposed to risks from working with a hazardous material, but could also have fallen into or from the storage tank.
The company admitted breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £17,000 and ordered to pay £3,246 in costs.
The HSE Inspector on the case commented that the incident was completely preventable. It was a specialist task involving both the risk of chemical burns from the caustic soda, and also falling from the tank to the ground or, even worse, into an adjacent uncovered tank containing sodium cyanide solution. Had that happened, the consequences could have been fatal.
It was found that Inflite Engineering Ltd failed to adequately assess the COSHH risks when they asked their employees to clean out the tank, and failed to provide adequate control measures to ensure the job could be done safely.
This is something we see all too often when non-routine specialist tasks such as this will impose unnecessary risks on employees, often with grave consequences. Too many businesses seem to fail to assess COSHH properly as they really do not understand the chemicals they are asking people to work with. This leads to a lack of appreciation of the substances (by the employees).
The HSE is reminding businesses that it is essential that thorough assessments of the COSHH risks are carried out to determine if there is sufficient in-house expertise. Where the COSHH risk assessment shows a gap in knowledge then employees should be provided with the necessary training and equipment to enable them to carry out the task safely. Where this is not appropriate then a specialist contractor should be appointed.
We would urge all businesses to look again at their COSHH risk assessments and to make sure they cover both routine and non-routine tasks. Getting caustic in the eye could easily lead to a loss of sight.