Workers fled for their lives when a fire, which broke out when a flammable vapour ignited, quickly spread to other containers of dangerous solvent mixtures, causing some of them to explode.
Seven of Doncaster firm Solvents With Safety’s workforce were present at the time, but all managed to escape unharmed after a quick-thinking supervisor ordered them to evacuate the site and called the emergency services. The initial blaze was described as escalating to a raging inferno within minutes.
Doncaster magistrates heard that employees were transferring highly-flammable toluene from a bulk container into a smaller drum ahead of the incident, at the company’s Plumtree Farm Industrial Estate on 16 June 2010. They were attempting to fill the drum using a pipe from a container; however, the pipe they used was too short. Consequently, the liquid was dropped from the pipe into the drum, as part of a process called ‘splash filling’, which is known to generate static electricity – a potential ignition source. At the time of the operation, which was not carried out in a bunded area, there would have been a flammable vapour over the surface of the toluene, the flash point of which is just 4 degrees C. It is thought that the build-up of static electricity in the drum ignited the vapour and sparked a fire, which completely ravaged the premises.
An HSE investigation found the ‘splash filling’ method to be wholly inappropriate and it posed a clear safety risk that wasn’t properly assessed. “The Solvents With Safety workforce was extremely lucky to escape unharmed from this incident,” said HSE inspector, Jayne Towey. “The size and scale of the fire was immense; it took hold in minutes and caused total devastation to the company’s premises. Lives were needlessly put at risk because there would have been no blaze at all had the company taken more care with the decanting operation.”
The safety of workers was further compromised by the fact that the pipe used to fill the containers wasn’t earthed, and because the PPE worn by workers was not anti-static.
Solvents With Safety was also fully aware of the dangers of splash filling, given that the HSE had twice written to it about this very issue, first in May 2006 and, again, in December 2007. In its response to this advice, the company assured the regulator that anti-static PPE would be provided.
Pleading guilty on 3 October to breaching reg.6(1) of the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002, Solvents With Safety Ltd was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £6860 in costs.
Describing the splash-filling method as “fraught with risk”, inspector Towey said the generation of static charge could have been prevented by the provision of a longer filling pipe. “This was a reasonably practicable measure to take,” she explained, “and the company was well aware of the dangers on the back of earlier HSE advice. Companies working with dangerous substances must take extreme care at all times and in all aspects of their operations. That clearly didn’t happen on this occasion and it could have had far-reaching consequences.”