South Tyneside Magistrates’ Court heard how, on 12 December 2017, the employee of Wheelnut Ltd, entered an area of the company’s former premises in Swalwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, known as the “acid room”. The employee entered the room to retrieve alloy wheels from one of three barrels of a chemical substance containing Dichloromethane (DCM), Methanol and Hydrofluoric Acid used in the stripping process. He was subsequently found by a colleague slumped unconscious over a barrel.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found a risk assessment for the chemical wheel stripping process was not suitable or sufficient. Appropriate control measures should have included suitable exhaust ventilation in the room as well as respiratory protective equipment (RPE) for the employees. RPE was provided but it was not maintained in an efficient or effective state. Several parts of it were damaged and the air feed to it from the compressor was not filtered correctly. The investigation found that on this occasion, and previously, the employee was not wearing the RPE when he entered the room. Employees were not provided with suitable and sufficient information, instruction, and training with regards to the risks involved with using the chemicals, particularly the risks involved with using DCM.
Wheelnut Ltd of Whickham Bank, Swalwell, Newcastle upon pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. The company was fined £32,000 and ordered to pay full costs of £1718.50.
Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Joy Craighead said: “A young worker suffered a potentially serious injury. Breathing in DCM vapour can produce narcotic effects and, at high concentrations, unconsciousness and death. In this instance, the boy made a full recovery, but it could have easily resulted in his death.”
Commenting on the sentencing, Mike Brodie, Chemstore UK Managing Director said: “A storage arrangement with suitable extraction could have prevented this incident from happening. It is easy to underestimate the dangers of gases and vapours given off by chemicals because they can be odourless and vapourless but their effects can be devastating. Thankfully the apprentice in question made a full recovery but the incident is a reminder of the importance of storing hazardous substances correctly.”
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