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Air Liquide’s gas bottle disposal system like ‘Russian roulette’

An industrial gas supplier has been handed a penalty exceeding £182,000 after an employee was overcome by fumes in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent.

Image credit: ©Sipa USA/REX/Shutterstock

An Air Liquide (UK) emergency response team was disposing of redundant gas bottles on 7 February 2015 after the company had failed to arrange for a specialist contractor to handle the disposal. 

The task involved two workers cutting open the bottles inside a purpose-built box with a hacksaw operated from the outside. 

A third worker wearing a bomb disposal suit and respiratory protective equipment was carrying a bottle that had been cut open when about 50 ml of highly hazardous liquid spilled on to the floor. 

Vapour from the spill drifted downwind and affected the two other workers’ breathing as they were not wearing respiratory apparatus. One of the men was overcome by the vapours and collapsed. They were taken to hospital but did not require treatment and were later discharged. 

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that Air Liquide’s emergency response team was not prepared to deal with the hazardous contents inside the bottles. The work had not been supervised and the company had failed to control the “very real” risk of explosion, it said. 

Craig Morris, prosecuting, was reported by local newspaper The Sentinel as saying: “About 50 different substances were potentially contained within the bottles […] It is puzzling to the prosecution how they have stepped so far away from the basic industry guide.” 

Judge Paul Glenn accepted that the company’s system for removing bottles was safe before workers stopped using breathing apparatus, but said cutting through the bottles was like “Russian roulette” as the workers did not know what was inside them.  

Air Liquide UK pleaded guilty to breaching s 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act. It was fined £160,000 plus £22,612 in costs at Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court on 6 July. 

HSE inspector Matthew Lea said: “Employers have a duty to devise and train their workers in safe systems of work and make sure they are being followed. That starts with understanding the hazardous properties of the chemicals likely to be present in the bottles they are required to handle. Their failures put the lives of their workers at significant risk.”

 

Keeley Downey is assistant editor of IOSH Magazine

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