A case has recently caught our eye that shows just how horribly wrong a task can go if it’s not properly thought out in advance. The event involved a father-of-three suffering horrific injuries in an explosion whilst cleaning the inside of a 20,000 litre fuel tank, known as a bowser.
The man was engulfed by a fireball that caused severe burns and left him almost completely paralysed. As DSEAR specialists, it seems incredible that an employer would ask its employees to go into a tank or any confined space and use a highly flammable solvent to clean the inside. The man was applying the solvent to a cloth and then wiping down the walls; to do so he had climbed through a manhole cover on top of the six-metre-long tank.
The court was told the tanks needed to be spotlessly clean before being delivered to customers in the aviation industry to avoid dirt getting into the fuel used by aeroplanes. Workers took it in turns to clean each tank as the build-up of fumes from the solvent made them feel sick.
They had been provided with a lamp in order to see inside the tank; during the task the man decided that the lamp inside the tank was getting too hot and so he pulled the plug from its socket. As he did this, a spark caused the fumes to ignite and he was surrounded by flames, which were witnessed shooting into the air up to two meters above the manhole cover.
The fire was so hot that it melted the visor on his mask and his protective suit, so that only the elastic from the collar and cuffs were left. He suffered multiple burns over most of his body, including his arms, legs and face, his hair and eyebrows were burnt off, and his lips badly burnt. He was in hospital for three months and is now almost totally paralysed.
His firm, Fuel Proof Ltd was prosecuted after an investigation by the HSE identified serious safety failings. The HSE investigation found the method of cleaning the fuel tanks with a highly flammable solvent had been used since 2007, but Fuel Proof had failed to carry out any kind of risk assessment. There was no supervision of workers or monitoring of the fumes inside the tank, and the masks and lighting provided were entirely unsuitable.
Frustratingly the business failed to ask a key question – does the task really have to be done in this way? We see this far too often and if only the business had taken a step back it could have prevented this tragedy.
The day after the incident, the company decided it didn’t need to use a solvent to clean the fuel tank and instead used soapy water.
Fuel Proof Ltd was fined £66,000 and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £25,000 after pleading guilty to a charge under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.
As the HSE commented it’s shocking that Fuel Proof allowed workers to use a highly flammable solvent to clean the inside of fuel tanks for four years without giving a single thought to the risks.
The man has gone on record to say “I wish that what has happened to me never happens to anyone else. I am not able to lift my arms, move my legs and feet or hold anything in my fingers and hands. Every morning after breakfast, I am moved into my wheelchair and stay there until it’s time for bed. Generally, I am very bored and frustrated. I am not able to do anything I used to do before the accident such as drive a car, go to karate sessions or play my trumpet which I played since the age of 12. I can’t play football with my son or give my children a cuddle, and my life will never be the same again.”
So if you have tasks where hazardous substances are being used why not take the time to ask the question – do we really need to do it this way?