Pharmaceutical company fined over “preventable” failings

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive has led to the prosecution of a north east pharmaceutical company after “preventable” safety failings left a worker fighting for his life.

Newcastle Crown Court heard that the employee was sprayed with seven litres of bromine as he removed cables from a valve connected to pipework.

Aesica Pharmaceuticals was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay £7,803 for the failures.

After the case, HSE Inspector Graham Watson said: “This was a serious incident with potentially fatal consequences which was readily preventable.

“All employers and particularly those handling dangerous chemicals must not assume a lack of previous incidents means risks are adequately controlled. Measures must be in place to ensure, through robust audit and review that this is due to effective management and not just good fortune.”

Bolts on the bellows badly corroded

The Court heard how in 2007 the bromine bulk storage tank at the centre of the incident had been pulled out of service and readied for an insurance inspection which involved removing short sections of connecting pipework.

The tank failed its insurance inspection, but its planned replacement was postponed until 2012. For the following five years, the tank remained in process and, whilst pipework at one end was disconnected, the other end remained connected to pipework for filling an adjacent tank with bromine.

The HSE investigation found that when the employee disconnected the cables the bellows failed, ejecting the bromine all over him. It was concluded that the bolts on the bellows were badly corroded heightening the chance of rupture under any stress and that another section of bromine pipework was also inadequately supported.

Mr Watson commented: “Maintaining the mechanical integrity of process plant and pipework is essential to preventing the loss of hazardous chemicals. Any changes to plant must be carefully assessed to ensure it does not increase the risk of failure. Measures must be in place through an on-going programme of maintenance and inspection to ensure the continued integrity of the plant according to risk.”

Bromine can cause severe skin burns and is potentially fatal if inhaled. The employee, who spent four weeks in hospital, is still undergoing treatment for his injuries and is yet to return to work.

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