Workers breathed deadly gas in poorly-maintained DCU
Three workers were nearly overcome by carbon-monoxide fumes while taking a shower in a decontamination unit (DCU), at a demolition site in Huddersfield.
The men were part of a five-strong team working for Newlincs Services Ltd, which had been contracted to remove asbestos as part of the demolition of an old mill, on 18 November 2009. Once the team had removed the asbestos they each went through a three-stage DCU, which comprised a dirty area, shower and clean area.
Two of the men passed through the unit without any problems but the other three began feeling dizzy and nauseous when they were getting dressed in the clean area. All three were sent to hospital where tests showed they had suffered carbon-monoxide poisoning. The three workers, Richard McKearnen, 59, Tony Deakin, 50, and Paul Wainwright, 49, all from Sheffield, were treated with high-flow oxygen therapy at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and released later the same day.
The HSE inspected the DCU and found that the boiler, which heated the shower, was in a poor condition, owing to frost damage, and was leaking carbon monoxide. The boiler was located in a compartment in the clean area and was meant to be protected by an air-tight seal, but this was damaged, allowing the gas to escape. Following the inspection, the firm was issued a Prohibition Notice requiring the DCU to be repaired before it could be returned to service.
HSE inspector, David Stewart, told SHP that the DCU was five months out of date for its annual gas inspection. He stressed the good fortune that the men had only used the unit for around 10 to 15 minutes each as, if they had been exposed to the gas for any longer, it is highly probable there would have been a fatality.
He said: “Carbon monoxide can be a silent killer in the home and, as this case demonstrates, also in the workplace. It is essential that any appliances, such as gas boilers and heaters, which can generate this gas, are maintained on a regular basis to ensure they are operating efficiently and safely.
“Even though these three men spent a relatively short time in the affected part of the decontamination unit, they were left seriously nauseous and dizzy. The consequences of longer exposure could have been fatal.”
Newlincs Services appeared at Huddersfield Magistrates’ Court on 7 April and pleaded guilty to breaching s2(1) of the HSWA 1974. It was fined £5000 and ordered to pay £3580 in costs.
In mitigation, the firm said it had no previous convictions and has subsequently stopped carrying out asbestos removal work, so it no longer uses the DCU. During the period that it did continue to use the DCU, it carried out the required repairs and also fitted a carbon-monoxide alarm.
Inspector Stewart concluded: “A carbon-monoxide alarm is effective as a last line of defence but is not a substitute for proper maintenance.”
Safety & Health Podcast: Listen now
Exclusive interviews, the very latest news and reports from the health and safety frontline and in-depth examinations of the biggest issues facing the profession today. You'll find all that and more in the Safety & Health Podcast from SHP.
Find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts, subscribe and join the conversation today.