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July 15, 2009

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HSE under fire over deficiencies in LPG inspections

The report into the causes of the explosion at the ICL Plastics factory

in Glasgow five years ago has lambasted the HSE over regulatory

weaknesses.

The joint public inquiry, chaired by Lord Gill — Scotland’s second most senior judge — described the explosion at Grovepark Mills on 11 May 2004, as “an avoidable tragedy”. It was caused by the ignition of an explosive atmosphere, which had formed in the basement of the building, as a result of a leak of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from a corroded underground pipeline. The explosion caused the building to collapse, which resulted in all but one of nine fatalities, while 33 people suffered serious injuries.

Although Lord Gill stressed that primary accountability for managing the risks of LPG remains with premises owners and managers, he also heavily criticised the HSE, pointing out in the report that it has not yet produced a coherent action plan to deal with underground metallic pipework and the risk of a recurrence.

The report states: “While the probability of another explosion may be low, the consequences of a similar event, should it occur, may be catastrophic. A sense of urgency would be an appropriate response to the serious issue of public confidence that this disaster has raised.”

Regulatory weaknesses highlighted include a failure by the HSE to prioritise inspections of older LPG installations that feature buried pipework; inadequate training of inspectors in LPG hazards and risks; and a failure to ensure the effective follow-up of inspections that indicated the existence of risks on LPG sites.

The report also identifies a dearth of information on metallic pipework. It says: “None of this pipework is subject to any systematic regime of inspection and maintenance; or to systematic data recording. As matters now stand, there is every possibility that a similar disaster could occur again.”

Inadequacies of the UK’s risk-assessment system are also underlined by the conclusion that compliance with statutory risk-assessment provisions gives only a limited assurance of the safety of an installation. The report states: “It is possible for what may look like a full risk assessment to miss a significant risk, as happened at Grovepark Mills.”

The inquiry also found weaknesses in the LPG regime, in relation to users and suppliers — in particular, the lack of a safeguard to prevent a user whose installation is dangerous from accessing supplies of LPG. In addition, users are not obliged to keep comprehensive records of all matters relevant to an installation’s safety, such as design drawings, plans and maintenance records.

In drawing up his recommendations, Lord Gill stressed that the aim is to establish a streamlined simple regime for LPG that neither requires new legislation nor creates added burden on the HSE.

His four-phase plan involves:

  • the urgent identification of those sites where there is underground metallic pipework, and to replace all such pipework with polyethylene, and an early inspection of all buildings that have an LPG supply;
  • the establishment of a permanent and uniform safety regime governing the installation, maintenance, monitoring and replacement of all LPG systems;
  • development of the safety regime, particularly in relation to the use of polyethylene pipes; and
  • a permanent system by which safety questions will be reviewed and dealt with on an industry-wide basis, by which knowledge and understanding is effectively communicated both within the HSE and from the HSE and UKLPG to suppliers and users.

Outlining the action the HSE is taking, its chief executive Geoffrey Podger said: “HSE has already done a great deal since the accident at ICL Plastics, especially in preparing for a comprehensive programme by the UK LPG suppliers for buried metal pipework to be replaced with newer and more robust plastic pipes.

“The UKLPG industry signed up to the replacement plan in June this year and work has already started, ramping up in October, following preparatory data collection, risk assessments, and a promotional campaign to alert duty-holders to the need to take action. This will be taken forward with the added benefit of Lord Gill’s report.”

He continued: “We have worked hard with the LPG suppliers and their trade association, UKLPG, to develop a plan to replace the pipes, using a risk-based approach to tackle the ones which pose the greatest risk first.

“Moreover, the HSE has gone further than the remit of Lord Gill’s inquiry as we are tackling the LPG supply to domestic households as well. This is largely outside HSE’s remit, but we believe that public safety will be best served if we also help householders identify and control risks caused by buried metal pipes.”

Dorothy Wright, a spokesperson for Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK), described the inquiry as a waste of time and money. She said: “The report of the public inquiry into the explosion is disappointing in its avoidance of the key issue that concerns workers — how can we be sure we will be safe at work if our employers can and do flout the law, are ignorant of the issues, and the health and safety police don’t enforce until people are killed?”

Work and Pensions Secretary, Yvette Cooper, has asked the HSE to set

out how Lord Gill’s recommendations can be taken forward, and to report

back to her within eight weeks. Ministers will report back to

Parliament in the autumn before publishing a full response to the

report early in the New Year.

The report is at www.theiclinquiry.org

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