£3m fine after toxic cloud death

A chemical company has been fined £3m after poor Health & Safety practices killed a worker and seriously injured another.

The workers were overcome by poisonous fumes. The court heard they were showered with corrosive liquid and quickly blanketed by a thick white cloud. The vapour reached a height of several metres as it poured out from the worksite.

The incident was the second within two years at Cristal Pigment UK’s plant at Stallingborough in Lincolnshire.

What went wrong?

A vessel containing Titanium Tetrachloride burst. This highly unstable chemical had reacted violently to contact with water. Liquid from the cracked vessel then came into contact with air to form deadly corrosive fumes.

Wind blew the poisonous vapour across the Humber causing shipping lanes to be shut for several hours.

The incident happened during the cleaning of an old disused vessel that contained several tonnes of residual Titanium Tetrachloride.

An investigation by the Health & Safety Executive found the company had failed to adequately seal the vessel before cleaning it. The design and fixing of fabricated sealing plates was bad and the wrong sealant was used.

Why was safety management so poor?

An investigation by the HSE found the company had not used its “normal” operating procedures.

Safety procedures at the plant were poorly designed.

The company did not have sufficiently robust safety management procedures in place. It failed to make sure its workplace systems to assess and control risks were actually followed.

The company said its Stallingborough plant was highly complex with a specialised manufacturing process. It accepted the HSE’s investigations had found “deficiencies” and that it was responsible for the safety failings.

What was the penalty?

Cristal Pigment UK Ltd admitted failing to comply with the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999.

The company was fined £3m for both incidents with costs of £37,868.

The HSE said the company had failed to learn lessons from a first incident in 2010. Another significant release of the same toxic gas happened sixteen months later killing a worker and leaving another with life-changing injuries. It added, “Had the wind been blowing in the opposite direction it could also have caused a local disaster.”

The case should remind industry there can be no room for loose Health & Safety procedures. According to Cristal’s website it “strives to be exemplary in its safety, health and environmental performance”.

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