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November 7, 2011

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Worker burned in trench gas explosion at football club

A labourer suffered serious burns to his face, neck and arms after he was engulfed by a fireball in a trench at Macclesfield Town football club’s training ground.

Macclesfield magistrates heard on 4 November that 43-year-old Stephen Rowley, from Macclesfield, had been working in the trench at Egerton Youth Club in Knutsford, Cheshire, on 18 September 2009 when the incident occurred.

His employer, Cheshire builder Paul Leonard, also 43 and from Macclesfield, had been hired to repair a septic tank. Catherine Willars, the HSE inspector who investigated the case, told SHP that for Leonard, a small, self-employed contractor, the task was a larger one than he would normally have undertaken, so he decided to contract in an excavator operator from a groundwork company to dig out a trench to gain access to the tank.

Mr Rowley had been in the trench, crouching on his knees at a depth of four to five feet, attempting to release an outflow pipe from the connection into the septic tank using a hammer and chisel. He was passed an electrically powered hammer by Leonard, who then left the site while the work continued unsupervised.

The excavator operator struck an underground pipe containing liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which caused a sudden explosion and a fireball to shoot down the trench. With difficulty, he managed to clamber out of the trench and extinguish the flames himself by rolling on the ground. The first thing he said when Leonard returned was “Is my face still there?” according to the inspector.

“Clearly, the act of excavation severed a propane gas pipe 12 to 15 inches below the surface,” Inspector Willars observed. “The hammer was the most likely source of ignition and the fireball raged towards Mr Rowley, who was set on fire. Fortunately, his cotton T-shirt took much of the heat.”

The inspector said there had been a failure to fully and properly assess the site on the first day of work, and a failure to consider any aspect with regard to the siting of underground services.

She explained that the main sports building was reliant on propane as its main source of fuel for heating. “Two very large two-tonne tanks of propane were sited at the front of the premises, supplying propane by an underground feed directly into the clubhouse,” noted the inspector.

“Although there were no plans of the route of the pipework available, it was evident that the supply existed, and had Leonard done a suitable and adequate risk assessment, he would have realised and recognised that problem. We had evidence that the club manager had spoken to Leonard and had informed him of the presence of the underground supplies, although Leonard denied this.”

The court heard that Leonard had failed to consider that gas pipework might be present, and did not ensure the gas supply was isolated before starting work. He also failed to provide trench supports or means of access, such as a ladder, to get in and out of the trench.

Leonard pleaded not guilty and said in his defence that the excavator operator should have taken responsibility to seek out underground services. He said he had contracted in the operator at great expense from a competent groundwork company.

However, the district judge said there had been a lack of awareness on the part of the defendant of the potential impact that his actions might cause, and the legal duties for which he was responsible.

“Fundamentally, the issue of control was key,” the inspector concluded. “It was evident that this rested quite squarely on Leonard’s shoulders.”

Paul Leonard was found guilty of breaching reg.13(2) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 by failing to plan, manage and monitor the construction work safely. He was fined £2500 and ordered to pay a contribution of £3500 towards prosecution costs.

Inspector Willars concluded: “Stephen Rowley could easily have been killed in the gas explosion. He should never have been told to carry out work in a trench without proper safety precautions being put in place.”

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10 years ago

I agree with Mr Grumpy, if the CDM 07 Regs have been used against the defendent, why were they not also used against the client, who have obviously not carried out their duty under the Regs. I agree, the poor man has been seriously injured and that someone should be held accountable, but in effect, there are 3 here, the Client, (the club) the contractor (the defendant) and the employer of the excavtor driver. The HSE should go for all 3, the client ,contractor and employer of the driver concerne

10 years ago

This was a fire not an explosion!. Do the HSE not know the difference or is this just sloppy jounalism by the HSE’s PR people.

10 years ago

What does it matter whether it was a fire or explosion? Stephen was badly burnt and is probably still suffering (along with his loved ones) because a proper assessment was not done of the area being excavated. If you want to turn people away from the real issues there are always inaccuracies and inconsistencies in reporting which is the sort of thing misinformed politicians and the anti ‘elf & safety’ brigade try to use to make their case against effective safety legislation and regulation.

10 years ago

Strange that several months ago I felt compelled to respond to an article in the Macclesfield local paper. Within which Health and Safety was getting the usual ill-informed kicking from an individual with strong links to Macclesfeild Footy club! So what about Macclesfeild Footy clubs responsibility in all this, they brought in an insufficiently qualified contractor – no this doesn’t add up!

10 years ago

It is quite feasible the football club were not aware of the client’s duties under CDM Regs being a smallish outfit and I doubt the project was Notifiable. Therefore it would be harsh to prosecute an organisation who knew no better. The other two entities are soley responsible in my opinion.