A North East pharmaceutical company were fined on 20 September 2014 for a serious safety breach which left a worker fighting for his life in hospital.
The employee, from Tyne and Wear, was sprayed with seven litres of bromine as he removed cables from a valve connected to pipework at Aesica Pharmaceuticals on the Windmill Industrial Estate, Cramlington, Northumberland. He spent 48 hours in a life-threatening condition after inhaling the corrosive substance and also suffered severe skin burns and damage to one eye.
The incident, on 7 February 2012, was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which prosecuted the company for safety failings. Aesica Pharmaceuticals Ltd was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay £7,803 after pleading guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.
Newcastle Crown Court heard that in 2007 a bromine bulk storage tank had been taken out of service and prepared for an insurance inspection which included removing short sections of connecting pipework. The removal left the rest of the pipework, including some valves, suspended from a set of flexible bellows which allowed movement in the pipework, but were not designed to be weight-bearing.
The tank failed its inspection and planned replacement was postponed until 2012. Over the next five years while pipework at one end was disconnected, the other end was still connected to pipework for filling an adjacent tank with bromine, which left it contaminated. When the worker subsequently removed the cables, the bellows failed releasing the bromine over him. Bromine is classified as potentially fatal if inhaled and can cause severe skin burns. The employee was in hospital for four weeks and continues to receive treatment for his injuries. He has not yet returned to work.
HSE found that the bolts on the bellows were badly corroded increasing the likelihood that they would rupture under any stress. It also identified that a further section of bromine pipework, which could also have become contaminated with bromine, was also inadequately supported.
After the case, HSE Inspector Graham Watson said:
“This was a serious incident with potentially fatal consequences which was readily preventable.
“All employers and particularly those handling dangerous chemicals must not assume a lack of previous incidents means risks are adequately controlled. Measures must be in place to ensure, through robust audit and review that this is due to effective management and not just good fortune.
“Maintaining the mechanical integrity of process plant and pipework is essential to preventing the loss of hazardous chemicals. Any changes to plant must be carefully assessed to ensure it does not increase the risk of failure. Measures must be in place through an on-going programme of maintenance and inspection to ensure the continued integrity of the plant according to risk.”