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March 19, 2013

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Boat-repair firm failed to identify confined-space risks

Two workers were exposed to the risk of an explosion while carrying out unsafe welding on a fishing boat’s diesel tank.

The men, one of whom was only 17, were working for boat-repair company C & L Marine Ltd. They were asked to carry out cleaning and welding work to repair a fuel leak on the Margaret of Ladram, which was moored in Sutton Harbour, Plymouth.

The fuel tank was one deck down and accessed from a small manhole below the vessel’s net store. The workers were required to use buckets to empty the tank of more than 600 litres of residual seawater and diesel, and had been provided with rags to clean the inside in preparation for the welding.

Neither man was provided training for the job, nor were they supplied with any respiratory protection. They took turns to enter the tank to clean it, in order to have respite from the fumes. One of them started to find it difficult to breathe when he was inside the tank, and said he felt dizzy and faint.

The next day, one of the men used a grinder, causing sparks to fall on his workmate, who was holding a lamp to illuminate the work. Significant amounts of fumes were created and they evacuated the boat and contacted staff at the harbour for advice.

The harbourmaster visited the boat and halted further work after the company failed to provide documentation and permits to show the tank was safe in which to work. He then notified the HSE about the unsafe work.

The HSE visited the harbour and found that no gas monitor was used to measure available oxygen in the tank and no gas-free certificate was obtained before beginning the work. An electric fan was being used to blow the fumes out of the tank, and a second fan was also put outside in the net store. Neither fan had an extraction hose, which meant they just blew the fumes about.

Both men were unsupervised and unfamiliar with the tank work they were undertaking. C & L Marine also failed to considered the need to provide rescue equipment, such as harnesses and lifelines, or other appropriate emergency arrangements.

The firm was issued a Prohibition Notice, which ordered the repairs to stop until a safe system of working in a confined space was created.
 

HSE inspector David Cory said: “C & L Marine’s lack of preparation for this work showed very significant failings, which could have led to tragedy – they should have been well aware of the risks cleaning and then welding in the diesel fuel tank would have posed.

“The tank should have been thoroughly steam-cleaned or jet-washed, instead of being bucketed out and mopped with rags. There was no test for the presence of noxious or flammable gases, or whether there was sufficient oxygen in the tank before the men began work.

“If the diesel fuel residues had been sufficiently heated they would have created fumes which could have led to an explosion, or fire. Ventilation was either absent, or woefully inadequate.”

C & L Marine appeared at Plymouth Magistrates’ Court on 18 March and pleaded guilty to breaching reg.3(1) of the MHSWR 1999, and reg.3(1)9(a), reg.4(2) and reg.5(1) of the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997. It was fined a total of £20,000 and ordered to pay £23,000 in costs.

After the hearing, inspector Cory added: “All employers involved in confined-space working must consider their activities properly, train and equip staff sufficiently, and reduce and control risks as much as possible. All confined-space work is high risk and, if not properly controlled, can go badly wrong, very quickly.”

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