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Companies in court over major chemical fire in Crewe

27 July 2011

Two companies have appeared at Chester Crown Court following a major chemical fire in Crewe which sent aerosols rocketing into the air. At its height, the fire spread to cover more than 10,000 square metres - nearly one and a half times the size of a Premiership football pitch. Surrounding roads had to be closed all day and firefighters had to stay on the site into the following morning.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Crewe-based waste recycling company, Greenway Environmental Ltd and Preston-based waste shredder manufacturer, Pakawaste Ltd following an investigation into the explosion and fire at Aztec Aerosols on the Gateway Industrial Estate on 4 June 2007.

Chester Crown Court heard the fire was caused by an explosion in an aerosol-shredding unit and more than 100 firefighters and 25 fire engines were involved in putting it out. The unit had been designed, manufactured and supplied by Pakawaste, and was being used on Greenway's premises.

Many of the aerosols shot into the air and onto nearby roads after setting alight, and neighbouring buildings were damaged. A 200-metre exclusion zone was set up while fire crews brought the blaze under control, and explosions of drums and cylinders could be heard more than half a mile away.

The HSE investigation found the machine had not been designed to safely shred waste containers containing residues of flammable liquids and gases, with unsafe operating procedures in place. It also concluded that it should have been operated in a segregated area away from where flammable substances were being stored.

Gill Chambers, the investigating inspector at HSE, said: "This was a serious incident that caused major disruption in Crewe and had the potential for workers and the public to be badly injured. "There was obviously a fault in Pakawaste's design and manufacturing process which resulted in the shredding unit exploding. Greenway should also have had better procedures and arrangements in place to protect its workers and prevent the fire from spreading.
"It is extremely important for companies working with potentially dangerous materials to identify the hazards and make a proper assessment of the risks. Machinery has to be fit for purpose and there must be safe working practices for dealing with flammable substances."
Cheshire's Chief Fire Officer, Paul Hancock, added: "This was a major incident which could have been a lot worse if crews had not prevented flames from reaching cylinders containing 25 tonnes of Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), close to the original site of the fire. "It is extremely fortunate that there were no injuries to members of the public or firefighters."

Greenway pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 by failing to ensure the safety of workers. Pakawaste, of Rough Hey Road, Grimsargh, Preston, pleaded guilty to breaching Section 6(1)(a) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 by failing to ensure the shredding unit was designed and constructed to be safe. The companies are due to be sentenced on July 28. HSE is warning businesses to be particularly careful when handling chemicals and substances in workplaces that might be fire hazards, which include petrol and paint thinners. Combustible materials, like packaging and sawdust, are also a serious hazard if not properly managed as they will help to spread fire rapidly.

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