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May 29, 2013

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In Court

Weapons manufacturer fined £200,000 following explosion

Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) plc has been ordered to pay more than £280,000 in fines and costs for failing to control explosive materials at a site in Berkshire.

Reading Crown Court heard there was an explosion took place on 3 August 2010 at the firm’s premises in Aldermaston. The ensuing fire quickly spread and seriously damaged the building.

Ashley Emery, 29, was breaking dry nitrocellulose (NC) into a plastic bucket, which contained methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), as part of the process to produce a lacquer. Both substances are volatile agents and the contents of the bucket ignited and produced a fireball. Mr Emery suffered burns during the explosion but managed to escape before the fire spread.

The HSE investigated the incident and found AWE possessed data sheets identifying the potential risks associated with the use of both substances. These provided direct guidance about situations to be avoided when using the substances, but insufficient attention was paid to them.

The company was also storing a number of hazardous substances in close proximity to each other. Had they come into contact with each other, the substances could have caused an explosion.

HSE Inspector Dave Norman said: “The fire could have caused multiple casualties and it was entirely preventable had better control systems been in place.

“The risks associated with the lacquer preparation were not fully recognised by the company. This was compounded by a decision to run numerous explosives processes at the same time and in the same building, which is completely unacceptable by industry standards.”

The HSE said it also found the firm had failed to ensure that employees working with the substances were all provided with flame-retardant coveralls.

Inspector Norman added: “This collection of shortcomings demonstrates that there were failures of supervision, monitoring and auditing over time, including in relation to the conducting, validating and approval of risk assessments.”

AWE plc appeared in court on 28 May and pleaded guilty to breaching s2(1) of the HSWA 1974. It was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay £80,258 in costs.

After the hearing, AWE director of science, technology and production Dr Graeme Nicholson said: “AWE always takes its health and safety responsibilities extremely seriously. We accept that on 3 August 2010, we did not meet our usually high standards. We regret the occurrence of the fire. We are sorry that a member of our staff was injured and for the disruption caused to local residents.

“The company immediately instigated a fully independently-chaired investigation, the results of which we shared with our local liaison committee and members of the public. We accepted all the recommendations.”

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Frank Delaney
Frank Delaney
11 years ago

This beggars belief. I’ve just read in my local press that AWE received an award from ROSPA for their H&S acheivements. Unbelievable. Were they not aware that the firm were beinh prosecuted?

11 years ago

This chap was very lucky to not have been even more seriously injured or killed. it’s a disgrace that a company of this size made so many obvious safety failings.

11 years ago

I see this firm actually managed to win a RoSPA award only days before this was sentenced. Great to reward a company with such a good safety record.

Red Trev
Red Trev
11 years ago

You’re not wrong Ray. Miracle neither occupant was killed. This is one of the worst examples of what can happen if people carry out illegal gas work. Should have had a custodial sentence that wasn’t suspended.

11 years ago

AWE is contracted to the Ministry of Defence (MOD) through a government-owned / contractor operated (GOCO) arrangement.. The next contract period takes effect from 3 April 2013.

The MOD, apart from being our customer, holds a special share in AWE plc and monitors our operations and performance, and along with other regulators and legislative bodies assures high safety and security standards are maintained at all times