A huge chemical blaze in Lancashire, which closed two motorways, has
led to the prosecution of an international waste-management company.
Sections of the M6 and M55 were shut for several hours during the morning commute on 2 July 2007, while 66 fire-fighters tackled the fire at the Red Scar Industrial Estate in Preston. More than 132,000 litres of chemicals were set alight, and fire-fighters said they saw drums rocketing into the air and off the site. Two people were on site at the time but were not harmed.
Veolia ES Cleanaway (UK) Ltd was fined £150,000 on 9 December for two offences under the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) 2002 and was ordered to pay £90,000 in costs. It followed a joint 15-month investigation by the HSE, the Environment Agency and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service.
Preston Crown Court heard that the fire started just after 6am in an open area of the site, which is used to store drums of chemicals, and was not extinguished until mid-afternoon. It is likely to have been caused by lithium batteries igniting. HSE inspector and lead investigator, Peter Gray, told SHP that the area was dedicated to the storage of flammable solids but in the immediate vicinity were flammable liquids, toxics and corrosives, which had not been properly segregated and helped the fire to escalate.
The batteries, which can ignite spontaneously if, for example, they come into contact with water or suffer impact, were stored in yellow bins for clinical waste. Said Inspector Gray: “The storage was inadequate because that increased the risk of self-ignition. The batteries should have been kept in robust, water-tight containers and kept segregated well away from other flammable and combustible materials.”
The company also had no specific risk assessment in place to deal with storage and handling of lithium batteries, and site workers were lacking awareness of the batteries’ specific risks and in dealing with fire and explosion hazards in general.
Following the incident, the HSE issued an Improvement Notice requiring the revision and rewriting of site-operating procedures. Three further enforcement notices, covering breaches of fire-prevention regulations, were also issued by Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service.
Veolia admitted breaching reg. 6(3) and 9(1) of the DSEAR by failing to take appropriate measures to control the storage of dangerous substances (£100,000 fine), and by failing to provide suitable and sufficient information, instruction and training for its employees (£50,000 fine).
HSE Principal Inspector for Lancashire, Linda Murray, said: “Our investigation showed that Veolia didn’t do enough to make sure that the dangerous chemicals on its site in Preston were stored safely. The company failed to provide adequate training for its staff.
“Any businesses that have flammable substances on their premises need to take appropriate measures to minimise the risk of fires or explosions. Veolia clearly could and should have done more.”
Kevin Lodge, investigation officer at the Environment Agency, added: “This was a serious incident, which had the potential to cause long-term environmental damage, as well as posing a risk to staff and members of the public. Any businesses handling hazardous waste must ensure that they have suitable procedures in place to identify, store and transport this type of waste.”
The closing of the two motorways was prompted by fears that smoke and fumes would travel if the wind changed direction. However, the emergency services managed to prevent the fire from spreading beyond the site perimeter.
Peter Holland, chief fire officer at Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, said: “This prosecution is the culmination of a comprehensive and detailed investigation, with the primary objective being to identify any possible measures that must be implemented to prevent a reoccurrence of such an incident.”
A spokesperson for Veolia Environmental Services told SHP: “We regret this incident and voluntarily closed the site for an extensive period afterwards, while we worked closely with the HSE and other regulators to put in place a number of improvement measures.
“We have reviewed and amended our site operating procedures and transport and storage protocols to ensure that they exceed legal requirements. In addition, we invested a significant sum to upgrade our storage infrastructure and have also substantially extended the existing training programme for operatives at the site.”
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In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.
Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.