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Company fined over £700,000 following employee deaths

28 July 2009

A subsidiary of engineering group Bodycote has been ordered to pay more than £700,000 following the death of two workers five years ago. A similar double fatality occurred in California in 2001, highlighting that Bodycote failed to learn lessons from the incident, and should have been aware of the dangers of working in confined spaces.

Company fined over £700,000 following employee deaths
Company fined over £700,000 following employee deaths

A works manager and a maintenance manager died of asphyxiation. The workers were found collapsed on the stairs leading to the pit at the College Road site on 14 June 2004, after argon gas leaked from a pressure vessel.

The court heard that the pit's oxygen alarm system was switched off on the day, due to a number of false alarms at the site. A ventilation system, which in retrospect could have saved the two men, was not operating, after it had lost power a month ago following a power cut and had forgotten to be switched back on. The HSE said there was no evidence that one of the employees had been given any appropriate safety training.

The pit was used to remove porosity from metal components using a method called hot isostatic pressing. On the day before the incident there was not enough argon gas to complete this process so the operation was stopped. The gas leaked out of the pressure vessel overnight and when the workmen entered the pit the following day they lost consciousness after breathing in the gas fumes.

On the 24th July Bodycote was fined £533,000 and ordered to pay costs of £200,000 after it admitted breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act at Worcester Crown Court.

The company denies that it completely disregarded health and safety at the site and had put in place a number of protective measures in place. Following the incident the company has re-trained staff to ensure they correctly follow the safe system of work, including carrying oxygen masks when working in confined spaces. Bodycote has also removed the inhibit button from the alarm system, so that the alarm can’t be silenced, and a warning light has been installed to alert operators to leaks, in the event that the alarm fails to sound.

The company failed to undertake a proper risk assessment for entry into the confined space. Although they had implemented a safe system of work and permit-to-work procedure, they had not properly trained employees in their use, or ensured that these systems and procedures were being followed through their auditing procedure.

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