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November 3, 2009

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“Wholly inadequate” controls led to massive explosion

An oil storage company and its managing director have been fined a combined £130,000 following an explosion at an oil processing facility in Kent.

Maidstone Crown Court heard that Eco-Oil Ltd was carrying out upgrading work at its Rochester plant when the incident took place on 30 March 2007. The site was being redeveloped so that it could process marpol (contaminated marine fuel) to separate water from the fuel. Eco-Oil had contracted Site Welding Services UK Ltd to make improvements to a number of tanks, which had been selected to house the marpol. The work included installing walkways and guardrails around the tanks to provide safer access.

On the day of the incident, Michael White, who was working for Site Welding Services UK, was installing a walkway on the top of tank 14, which contained 300,000 litres of mixed lube oil and fuel. He was welding parts of the walkway into place, when the contents of the tank ignited and blew off the tank’s roof. In order to rescue him, one of his colleagues raised a mobile elevated platform, enabling Mr White to jump from the top of the tank into vehicle’s bucket. He then vacated the area as the fire service battled the blaze, and was fortunate to escape with only minor injuries to his leg.

HSE inspector David Gregory revealed that no charges were brought against Site Welding Services as the greater burden of blame rested with Eco-Oil. The HSE also decided to bring charges against Eco-Oil’s managing director, Malcolm Cross, as he was the project manager for the upgrade work.

Eco-Oil and Cross appeared in court on 30 October and both pleaded guilty to breaching s2(1) and s3(1) of the HSWA 1974. The company was fined £125,000 and ordered to pay £20,000 in costs. Cross was fined £5000 with costs of £500.

In mitigation, the firm said it had no previous convictions and had fully complied with the investigation. It has subsequently carried out a risk assessment at the site and produced a method statement, which is now clearly explained to workers and contractors at the site.

Mr Cross told the court that he accepted responsibility for the incident and regretted that it had taken place. He also said he had been let down by some of his employees who he had trusted to give him safety advice, during the planning stages of the work.

Inspector Gregory said: “The incident occurred because the site operator lost control of what its contractor was doing. It was miraculous that the person on the tank at the time it exploded was not killed.

“The message is clear; make sure your controls are commensurate with the actual risk. In this case they were wholly inadequate and the incident was an inevitable consequence.”

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