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December 4, 2009

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Entire workforce was exposed to hazardous mist

Workers at a factory manufacturing ball bearings were exposed to a hazardous mist that was being released by over 100 machines across the site.

Barnsley Magistrates’ Court heard that he entire workforce at Koyo Bearings (Europe) Ltd were exposed to metalworking fluid, which was being emitted from metalworking machines between December 2007 to May 2008.

The machines used water-based chemicals during the manufacture of bearings for the automotive industry. The process involved spraying metalworking fluid on to a fast rotating piece of metal, in order to keep it cool, while it is being cut to shape to form a bearing. The liquid was applied at high speed, which created a mist that could be inhaled by employees. The machines were not enclosed and there was no extractor fan to prevent workers from coming into contact with the metalworking fluid, which is a known cause of occupational asthma and extrinsic allergic alveolitis (EAA).

The HSE carried an inspection on part of factory in April 2007, and identified the risks being posed by some of the machines. The company was issued with an Improvement Notice to provide its workforce with adequate face protection, and to install adequate control measures on six machines, to prevent employees coming into direct contact with the mist.

Inspectors returned in December 2007 and undertook a full safety audit across the whole site. The firm had complied with the Improvement Notice and installed extractors on each machine, but the inspection identified that the problem was more widespread and 100 other machines were emitting metalworking fluid.

Since 2005 there have been 15 reported cases of occupational asthma or EAA from workers at the factory, this represents the second largest exposure of its kind in the UK at a single company. HSE inspector Mark Welsh said: “The working practices at Koyo Bearings (Europe) Ltd were inadequate and dangerous. We found that a combination of employees breathing in metal working fluid mist, along with no filter system and inadequate training, resulted in the entire workforce being put at risk.

“Research shows that exposure to metal working fluids in this way can cause serious respiratory conditions, and the large number of cases of illness of this type at the company is shocking.”

Koyo Bearings (Europe) Ltd appeared in court on 30 November and pleaded guilty to breaching s2(1) of the HSWA 1974. It was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £15,280 in costs.

The firm mitigated that it had fully complied with the investigation and entered an early guilty plea. It has subsequently installed extractors on all of the machines, and issued staff with face-masks that were recommended by the HSE.

The company has a previous conviction for inadequate machine guarding, after a worker was injured in October 2000. It received a fine of £3000 and ordered to pay full costs of £1099.

Inspector Welsh concluded: “I would like to remind employers working with metal working fluids, that it is vital that they take the correct steps to prevent a similar situation.”

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