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Solvent company prosecuted for decanting failures

05 October 2012

A Doncaster solvent company has been fined after an unsafe decanting operation caused a huge fire that engulfed its Harworth base. Employees were transferring highly flammable toluene from a bulk container into a smaller drum ahead of the incident at Solvents With Safety Ltd at Plumtree Farm Industrial Estate on 16 June 2010.

The aftermath of the fire at Solvents With Safety Ltd
The aftermath of the fire at Solvents With Safety Ltd

They were attempting to fill the drum using a pipe from the container, however the pipe they used was too short. It meant dropping the liquid from the pipe into the drum, a process called 'splash filling' that is known to generate static electricity - a potential ignition source.

Doncaster Magistrates' Court heard on October 3 that the flash point of toluene is just 4 degrees. So on a "hot" June evening when the process took place, the toluene would have a flammable vapour over its surface.

The build up of static electricity in the drum is thought to have ignited the vapour and sparked a fire that quickly took hold and spread to other containers of flammable and dangerous solvent mixtures at the site, some of which exploded.

Seven workers were present at the time, but all managed to escape unharmed after a supervisor ordered them to evacuate the site and called the emergency services. The initial blaze was described as escalating to a raging inferno within minutes.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the 'splash fill' method was wholly inappropriate and posed a clear risk that wasn't properly assessed.

Worker safety was further compromised by the fact that the pipe used to fill the container wasn't earthed, and because the personal protective equipment worn by the workers wasn't anti-static and was therefore unsuitable.

The court also heard that HSE had twice written to Solvents With Safety, in May 2006 and December 2007, to warn of the dangers of splash filling containers.

The company pleaded guilty to breaching Reg 6(1) of the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 and was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £6,860 in costs.

After the hearing, HSE inspector Jayne Towey said:

"The Solvents With Safety workforce were extremely lucky to escape unharmed from this incident. The size and scale of the fire was immense, it took hold in minutes and caused total devastation to the company's premises.

"Lives were needlessly put at risk because there would have been no blaze at all had the company taken more care with the decanting operation.

"The method they used was fraught with risk to say the least, and the generation of static charge could have been prevented by the provision of a longer filling pipe to avoid splash filling. This was a reasonably practicable measure to take, and the company was well aware of the dangers on the back of earlier HSE advice.

"Companies working with dangerous substances must take extreme care at all times and in all aspects of their operations. That clearly didn't happen on this occasion and it could have had far-reaching consequences."

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