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October 27, 2011

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Firm failed to control exposure to asthma-causing fumes

A company that designs and manufactures LED-based variable message signs for motorways and railway signals has been prosecuted for putting its workers’ health at risk by exposing them to solder fumes.

An HSE inspection found that South Tyneside-based Variable Message Signs was seriously lacking in the way it controlled the risk of employees developing occupational asthma during soldering work.

South Tyneside Magistrates’ Court heard on 25 October that soldering at the firm had been carried out by test engineers undertaking repairs using rosin-based solder flux, the fumes of which are known to be a significant cause of occupational asthma.

Fiona McGarry, the HSE inspector who investigated the case and prosecuted it in court told SHP that soldering had been taking place for up to four hours a day with no facility in place to extract fumes. There had been poor ventilation in the room where soldering was being carried out, the company had not conducted a risk assessment, and there had been no health surveillance in place between 2007 and 2010.

The inspector explained that although the company does not manufacture circuit boards itself, it has repair contracts with local authorities and highway companies to test and rework signs if they are faulty. “This can involve a lot of soldering,” she said. “This was especially the case in 2009, when the firm had been having problems with a particular component in one of the circuit boards, which led to an increased amount of soldering.”

She noted further: “The company should have either replaced the rosin-based solder flux with less-hazardous rosin-free solder flux, or had adequate control measures in place, such as having local exhaust ventilation or on-tip extraction, above the soldering iron, if rosin-based solder was being used.”

In mitigation, the company said no one had actually been harmed. It has now provided control measures and installed local extraction ventilation, as well as changing to a rosin-free solder. But the inspector said: “One of the reasons we took the prosecution was because the firm had been given previous advice by the HSE that they needed to have extraction and health surveillance, but had failed to take action.”

She added: “The fume from rosin-based solder flux is one of the most significant causes of occupational asthma in the UK. Once developed, even small exposures to fume can lead to asthma attacks and the condition is irreversible.

“In this case, a number of employees would have been significantly exposed to hazardous fumes and any health problems arising from it would not have been detected, as there was no health surveillance procedure in place. Such surveillance is vital to enable symptoms to be detected early, which can help reduce the chances of developing asthma.”

Variable Message Signs was fined a total of £5500 for three breaches of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002:

  • £2500 for breaching reg.6(1) by not conducting an adequate risk assessment;
  • £1500 for a breach of reg.7(1) in not adequately controlling exposure to hazardous substances; and
  • £1500 for breaching reg.11(1) by failing to keep employees exposed to hazardous substances under health surveillance.

It pleaded guilty to all three charges and was also ordered to pay full costs of £4291.

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