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UK weapons manufacturer fined £200,000 following explosion

04 June 2013

Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) plc has been ordered to pay more than £280,000 in fines and costs for failing to control explosive materials at a site in Berkshire. An explosion took place on 3 August 2010 at the firm's premises in Aldermaston and the ensuing fire quickly spread and seriously damaged the building, Reading Crown Court was told.

ethyl ketone (MEK), as part of the process to produce a lacquer. Both substances are volatile agents and the contents of the bucket ignited and produced a fireball which injured the worker.

The Health and Safety Executive investigated the incident and found AWE possessed data sheets identifying the potential risks associated with the use of both substances. These provided direct guidance about situations to be avoided when using the substances, but insufficient attention was paid to them.

The company was also storing a number of hazardous substances in close proximity to each other. Had they come into contact with each other, the substances could have caused an explosion.

HSE inspector Dave Norman said: "The fire could have caused multiple casualties and it was entirely preventable had better control systems been in place.

"The risks associated with the lacquer preparation were not fully recognised by the company. This was compounded by a decision to run numerous explosives processes at the same time and in the same building, which is completely unacceptable by industry standards."

The HSE said it also found the firm had failed to ensure that employees working with the substances were all provided with flame-retardant coveralls.

Inspector Norman added: "This collection of shortcomings demonstrates that there were failures of supervision, monitoring and auditing over time, including in relation to the conducting, validating and approval of risk assessments."

AWE plc appeared in court on 28 May and pleaded guilty to breaching s2(1) of the HSWA 1974. It was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay £80,258 in costs.

After the hearing, AWE director of science, technology and production Dr Graeme Nicholson said: "AWE always takes its health and safety responsibilities extremely seriously. We accept that on 3 August 2010, we did not meet our usually high standards. We regret the occurrence of the fire. We are sorry that a member of our staff was injured and for the disruption caused to local residents.

"The company immediately instigated a fully independently-chaired investigation, the results of which we shared with our local liaison committee and members of the public. We accepted all the recommendations."

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