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September 22, 2008

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GSK fined over chemical blast

Global pharmaceutical and health-care giant GlaxoSmithKline has been fined £50,000 following an explosion at a chemical plant in Irvine, Ayrshire, in which two workers suffered serious burns.

Kilmarnock Sheriff Court heard on 3 September that the explosion happened at a factory where raw chemicals used in the production of anti-malaria drugs are treated.

On 2 March 2006, modifications to the drugs production process were being tested, using a placebo batch. A runaway reaction occurred after two substances — ammonium persulphate, an extremely powerful oxidising agent, and a solvent, toluene — were mixed.

“Safety data sheets would have pointed out the risk of explosion if these two substances were mixed,” Brian Kennedy, the HSE inspector who investigated the case, told SHP.

Although the source of ignition is not known, the inspector said it was likely that ignition occurred in the reactor vessel containing the chemicals.

The reaction led to an increase in temperature and pressure inside the vessel, with by-products released from the combination of the chemicals.

“If they had been mixed in a controlled manner, the explosion could have been prevented,” the inspector said.

A release of material ensued from the explosion, as well as a fire. Sections of the cladding on the building and doors were blown off, and a scaffold on the south side of the building was badly damaged. “Had the incident happened a couple of hours later than 6.50am, there could have been fatalities, if anyone had been on the scaffold,” added inspector Kennedy.

Two process operators were badly burned after the blast and needed considerable time off work, while other workers needed to be treated for shock. A Prohibition Notice was served by the HSE to stop the non-routine production-test activity for manufacturing of placebo batches being carried out without a suitable and sufficient risk assessment being undertaken.

GSK pleaded guilty to breaching the HSWA 1974 and reg.3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 by not conducting a suitable assessment of risk. The fine of £50,000 was not split between the two charges. No costs are awarded in Scotland.

In court, the company offered in mitigation its early guilty plea, cooperation with the HSE, and the immediate corrective and preventative action it took after the blast to avoid a repetition of the incident.

Jim McPherson, site director of the GSK plant in Irvine, added that the company regretted the serious injuries to the two men.

He said: “The health and safety of our employees is of paramount importance, and we take our commitment in this area very seriously. We recognise that this accident was traumatic for all those working at site and the local community, and have fully accepted responsibility. The failures identified, which resulted in this accident, have been fully addressed.”

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