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WEAPONS PLANT FAILED TO MANAGE FIRE RISK

Lack of assessment for dangerous substances triggers large fine 

The Atomic Weapons Establishment PLC (AWE PLC) has been ordered to pay more than £280,000 in fines and costs for significant failings relating to its use and control of explosive materials after a worker was injured when a fire broke out in an explosives processing building.

Ashley Emery, aged 29, suffered burns to his arm and face in the incident at the site in Berkshire on 3 August 2010. Reading Crown Court heard today (28 May) that he was breaking dry nitrocellulose (NC) into a plastic bucket containing methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) as part of the process of producing a lacquer. The contents of the bucket ignited and produced a fireball.

HSE investigators established that:

  • the company possessed data sheets identifying the risks associated with the use of NC and MEK;
  • the data sheets provided direct guidance about situations to be avoided when using the substances;
  • insufficient heed was paid to the data sheets; and
  • storage of unnecessary hazardous materials in the manufacturing area.

In addition, a number of explosives processes were taking place at the same time.

Collection of shortcomings demonstrated multiple failures

AWE Plc, of Aldermaston, near Reading, was fined £200,000, ordered to pay £80,258 in costs, plus £2,500 in compensation to the injured man after pleading guilty to a single breach of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

After sentencing HSE inspector Dave Norman said:

“The fire could have caused multiple casualties and it was entirely preventable had better control systems been in place. The failure to instigate such controls was dependent on AWE identifying potential hazards and risks, all of which were well documented, but that simply did not happen.

The building and equipment within it did not comply with the-then current standards required for storing and handling explosives, which are potentially sensitive to static electricity, nor for storing and handling extremely flammable liquids.

The risks associated with the lacquer preparation were not fully recognised by the company. This was compounded by a decision to run numerous explosives processes at the same time and in the same building, which is completely unacceptable by industry standards.

We also found that the personal protective equipment (PPE) provided for employees, principally a lack of flame retardant coveralls, was inadequate. This collection of shortcomings demonstrates that there were failures of supervision, monitoring and auditing over time, including in relation to the conducting, validating and approval of risk assessments.”

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