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UK chemical company fined £1 million for fatal 2018 explosion

20 September 2021

The UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has fined chemical company Briar Chemicals £1 million after an explosion killed a contractor at its Norwich plant in 2018. The death of maintenance contractor Rob Cranston, aged 46, was previously ruled as “accidental” following an 11-day jury inquest in December 2020.

Briar Chemicals factory in Norich - Image: Flickr/User: John Fielding
Briar Chemicals factory in Norich - Image: Flickr/User: John Fielding

The fine was announced on September 16 following a hearing at Chelmsford Magistrates Court. The court heard how on the 27 July 2018, Rob Cranston, who was a contractor from the firm Pruce Neman, was carrying out repair work on a mixing vessel during a planned period of shutdown maintenance at Briar Chemicals’ factory in Norwich, an Upper Tier COMAH establishment. It is thought that his welding torch or grinder accidentally ignited flammable Toluene vapour inside the vessel, which should not have been present when the work commenced. Mr Cranston was taken to Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital where he died later the same day.

Mr Cranston had been working with one of his two sons, 22-year old Owen, who had started an apprenticeship with Pruce Newman just a few weeks earlier. Owen was providing “fire watch and has previously said how there had been “a bang and a ball of flames”. He rushed to a fire alarm before returning to the chemical tank where he found his father on the ground.

The HSE investigation found that a quantity of Toluene residue had been left inside the vessel after shutdown cleaning at the beginning of June 2018. Two damaged valves situated above the vessel in the Toluene supply pipe, were also found to be leaking. Operatives had been instructed to transfer a large quantity of Toluene from one storage tank to another via this pipe which allowed additional flammable liquid to leak into the vessel which was supposed to be empty and clean.

In a Victim Impact Statement read out in court, Mr Cranston’s widow, Claire, said: “We married on 16 August 2003; he would have been 50 years old this year. He was so well-known and liked. I had his funeral at the Norwich Cathedral, there were over 750 people in attendance. This has obviously been horrendous for both our sons, particularly Owen having to deal with actually being there at the time. Our lives changed forever that day. We will never forget him and are only left wondering what the future would have held for us all together. We were still young enough to have had years of happiness ahead. He will miss seeing our sons’ lives develop and grandchildren in years to come.”

In a statement, the HSE said that Briar Chemicals had failed to take all necessary measures to prevent the explosion and as a result pleaded guilty to a breach of Regulation 5 of the COMAH Regulations 2015. The company was fined £1million and ordered to pay costs of £10,967.20.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Frances Bailey, who led the three-year investigation, commented: “This was a complex and highly technical investigation, due to the chemical hazards on site and the number of underlying issues which combined to cause the explosion. HSE hope that this case helps to communicate important safety messages to wider industry so that other fires and explosions are prevented in future.

“Any company handling or storing flammables should consider the potential risk of fire and explosion and ensure they have robust procedures in place to minimise and control risk at all times, including during planned maintenance work.”

Following the court hearing, Briar Chemicals said in a statement: “Robert Cranston was a valued and respected member of the wider Briar Chemicals team; his loss had a profound effect on the company and our staff that knew and worked with him.

“The Company has made changes and improvements within the systems at Briar Chemicals since the accident took place, and the company deeply regrets that a husband, father, and son and friend did not return home.

“Briar accepts responsibility, and after significant co-operation with the HSE during their investigation this has culminated in a guilty plea to the offence and the sentence imposed today by the court.”

Briar Chemicals went on to say that “What happened on that tragic day will not be forgotten, and neither will the lessons we have learnt from it.”

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