A judge has slammed the boss of a gas-supply firm for lying throughout his trial for safety failings, following an explosion at a factory in St Helens.
John Webster, who is managing director of North West Gases Ltd, was found guilty of failing to protect himself and workers following a trial at Liverpool Crown Court. The prosecution relates to an explosion at the firm’s factory on 10 April 2008.
On the day of the incident, Webster and another worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, were attempting to remove a valve on a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder, which the company produced for a range of uses, including powering forklift trucks. They failed to ensure that the cylinder was empty and when they unscrewed the valve, gas escaped into the workshop. When Webster attempted to put a new valve on the cylinder, the gas ignited and caused an explosion. Webster’s clothes were set on fire, and the other worker was thrown across the building. Both suffered serious burns to their hands, face, and legs. They were taken to a specialist burns unit and both suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. A third employee suffered minor injuries during the explosion.
HSE inspector Warren Pennington told SHP that Webster claimed he instructed his colleague to ensure that the cylinder was empty. This version of events was disputed by the injured worker who said that Webster was aware that the gas hadn’t been drained, and they heard it escaping when they loosened the valve.
Inspector Pennington explained that Webster should have removed the gas before making alterations to the cylinder. He and his colleague continued with the work despite the sound of the gas escaping, and gave no consideration to the multiple potential ignition sources in the workshop. “Mr Webster’s failure to carry out even the most basic of safety checks led to what was an entirely preventable incident,” said inspector Pennington. “He failed to ensure that the cylinder was empty and didn’t check for any potential sources of ignition in the building, any of which could have caused this explosion. In this case, the fact that no one was killed was simply down to luck.”
On 13 February, Webster was found guilty of breaching s7 of the HSWA 1974 and was fined £22,500. He was also ordered to pay £2500 towards costs. In delivering his sentence, Judge Morrow said: “The jury rejected your evidence because they must have been sure your were lying, as I am sure that you were lying. The only conclusion I can come to is the reason for replacing the valve was commercially motivated, though the benefit can’t have been very great.”
Webster had no previous convictions. He told the court that the factory was destroyed by the explosion and has not been rebuilt due to an ongoing dispute with his insurance provider.