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Chemical company fined £200,000 following toxic chemical release

25 March 2016

A chemical company was sentenced today in Leeds Crown Court for safety breaches when a very toxic chemical was ejected under pressure. A company maintenance technician unintentionally opened a valve on top of an isotanker at Syngenta Ltd’s Huddersfield plant resulting in the release of between 3.5 and 3.8 tonnes of paraquat dichloride solution. 

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted the firm over the incident.

Syngenta Ltd of Leeds Road Huddersfield pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 4 of the Control Of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999 and Regulation 5(1) of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 and was fined £200 000 with £13 041 costs by Leeds Crown Court.

Kevin Slack, prosecuting, said when a worker moved a handle, because of a defective coupling that valve partially opened and he was immediately sprayed with paraquat dichloride (PDC) on his face and upper body. Fortunately he was wearing safety glasses and did not swallow any of the substance.

He was only feet away from an emergency drench shower where he went immediately to wash off the solution and suffered no injury. Mr Slack told the court ingesting five to 10 millilitres of paraquat dichloride could be potentially fatal.

Another colleague who was standing on a gantry near Mr Morris at the time of the leak was also unharmed and was able to ring the site safety fire services.

The escape continued for half an hour until it was closed by a fire auxiliary wearing a full protective suit. By then it was estimated a minimum of 3.5 tonnes had escaped into the air.

Fortunately the wind blew the material towards storage areas and not towards an internal roadway which was used as an access road and there was no risk to anyone off the site at Leeds Road, Deighton, where some 400 employees work.

After the hearing, Health and Safety Executive inspector Angus Robbins commented: “This incident could have been prevented if Syngenta had properly assessed the real risk of the valve being opened while the tank was under pressure.”

He said it was the HSE's case that a maintenance programme should have covered checks on the couplings and that the risk assessment was inadequate.

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