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November 17, 2010

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Worker scarred for life after being engulfed by fireball

A welder suffered serious burns from a dust explosion at a chemicals plant in Cumbria.

David Lightfoot, 58, was working as a sub-contractor at Indorama Polymers (Workington) Ltd’s facility in Siddick, when the incident took place on 29 October 2008. He was welding a silo that contained 380 tonnes of the explosive powder terephthalic acid, which the company was selling as a raw material for use in the manufacturing of plastic drinks bottles.

The powder had solidified in the silo and the company had created a hole in the side of the container so the compound could be broken up with a metal rod. Mr Lightfoot was welding a metal component around the 2.5-inch diameter hole, which had been sealed with a temporary bung. He had been welding for around 20 seconds when he was suddenly engulfed in a fireball. He and a colleague jumped 10 feet to the ground to escape the flames. He suffered severe burns to his head, arms and hands, and he is still receiving treatment for his facial scaring. His colleague escaped with minor injuries.

The HSE’s investigation concluded that the bung had fallen out, allowing around 15 grams of the explosive powder to escape. The powder was then ignited by the welding flame, creating the fireball.

The company was issued an Improvement Notice on 12 January 2009, which required it to review its permit-to-work system at the site. HSE inspector Michael Griffiths said: “This was an entirely preventable incident, which caused serious burns to a man’s hands and face, and has left him with significant scarring.

“Indorama Polymers should have planned the work properly in advance. Either the welding should have been carried out before the hole was drilled into the vessel, or the explosive powder in that part of the vessel should have been removed before the welding started.

“It is extremely important that chemical companies treat health and safety as their top priority to avoid terrible injuries like this occurring again in the future.”

Indorama Polymers appeared at Workington Magistrates’ Court on 11 November and pleaded guilty to breaching s3(1) of the HSWA 1974. It was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £14,941 in costs.

In mitigation, the firm said it had no previous convictions and had fully cooperated with the investigation. It has subsequently reviewed its permit-to-work system by ensuring that the permit provider and workers jointly carry out a risk assessment and create a safe system of work.

Following the hearing, Mr Lightfoot said: “I was told that it would be safe to carry out welding work on the vessel but it wasn’t. You trust people to get it right and check things out for you but you can’t take anything for granted. I just hope this case helps prevent the same thing happening to someone else.”

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