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Steel firm fined £1.8m after two workers killed in factory blast

Cardiff Crown Court heard a lack of safety procedures led to a pressurised oil tank exploding.

Two workers died at the Celsa steel plant (Ben Birchall/PA)
Two workers died at the Celsa steel plant (Ben Birchall/PA)

By Adam Hale, PA Wales Correspondent

A steel company has been fined £1.8 million after two engineers were killed in a factory explosion following risk assessment failings.

Celsa Manufacturing Ltd admitted breaching health and safety regulations which led to the deaths of Peter O’Brien, 51, and Mark Sim, 41, at the firm’s steelworks in Cardiff.

On Friday, Cardiff Crown Court heard a lack of safety procedures led to a pressurised oil tank exploding at 10.30am on November 18 2015, while it was being drained in the factory’s basement.

An oil heater which should have switched off automatically were it not for an electrical fault caused the liquid to turn to vapour, creating a flammable atmosphere inside the tank which ignited and caused a “catastrophic” explosion.

Prosecutor Simon Morgan said: “The heat was sufficient to ignite that atmosphere, causing a massive increase in internal pressure such that the safety valve could not cope. The vessel exploded in a catastrophic fashion.

Prior to the accident there did not appear to be any corporate knowledge of process safety. Richard Bowen

“The explosion caused extensive damage to the cellar area and to the bar mill above. Oil expelled by the blast set alight and the cellar area was flooded as pumps and pipes were damaged. More importantly it caused the two men to die.”

The force of the explosion lifted steel floor plates upwards at speeds of 40mph and hit the roof of the building some 46 feet above.

Other workers who heard the explosion tried to rush to their colleagues’ aid but were met with intense fires and smoke preventing them from getting to the cellar.

Electrical engineer Darren Wood was working on a floor above at the time of the explosion, and while trying to escape fell into the basement below, injuring his hip and skull.

Mr Morgan said it was thought most likely the workers were unaware the oil levels in the tank had dropped below the minimum safety level as the oil heater, which was still switched on, would have turned off but for an electrical failure.

He said the workers should have received training to look out for faults with the system and assess the risks of operating the machinery.

Richard Bowen, the factory’s health and safety manager, said in interview some employees had “little or no training” on risk assessments, and that Celsa had not put in place steps to make sure workers carried them out.

Mr Bowen said: “It is my firm belief that engineering risk assessment was lacking… due to individuals not thinking that risk assessment was part of their role. I also think that others did not feel qualified or confident enough to do a satisfactory assessment.

“Prior to the accident there did not appear to be any corporate knowledge of process safety.”

The wives of Mr O’Brien, from Llanishen, Cardiff, and Mr Sim, from Caldicot, Gwent, both described the “trauma” they and their families had experienced following the incident.

Marie O’Brien, who has six children, said: “We will always love and miss Peter very much but we need to find some closure now.

“Nobody should ever go to work and not return.”

Samantha Sim, a mother of two, said: “The impact this has had on my family is the most traumatic experience I’ve ever had to deal with. I completely didn’t know how I was going to cope telling our children their dad wasn’t going to come home”

Civil proceedings between the families and Celsa were said to be in progress.

The court heard Celsa failed to review working methods despite a smaller explosion occurring two years before the incident when a contractor with no knowledge of the oil tank was burned while replacing pipework, possibly by oil being heated by his cutting disc.

The court was also told the firm had breached health and safety legislation on five previous occasions between 2005 and 2009, with one occasion involving a death.

Richard Matthews, defending Celsa, said the company accepted it had failed to identify risk of explosion when the oil tank was drained, saying: “It was the cause of this tragedy and cause of these men’s deaths, and the cause of the suffering and incalculable pain that has resulted.”

He added: “We underline that nothing that occurred was as result of any failure or error or mistake of any sort on the men’s part.”

Judge Neil Bidder criticised Celsa for not imposing a recognised set of instructions on how to safely drain the oil tank, describing its approach as “simply a recipe for disaster”.

The judge said: “There was, I judge, insufficient training of those working on the accumulator.

“If the job being done by Mr O’Brien and Mr Sim had been properly risk assessed, I am sure that this accident would not have occurred and that they would not have been killed and Mr Wood seriously injured.

“The tragedy is that it needed an accident as terrible as this to set necessary improvements in train.”

Celsa was ordered to pay a fine of £1.8 million within six months.

It was also ordered to pay £145,771.85 in costs and a £120 victim surcharge.

Outside court, Mrs Sim said: “Celsa has shown no respect for any of the victims of that fatal day, especially Mark and Peter. They could have entered these proceedings a lot sooner.”

Following the hearing a spokesman for Celsa said in a statement: “We are truly sorry for the shortcomings which contributed to the most tragic event in our history.

“Whilst nothing we can do will ever bring Mark and Peter back, our thoughts and deepest sympathies remain with those closest to them. The loss of two friends and colleagues will always be felt deeply by the whole Celsa family.

“We have left no stone unturned to ensure that nothing like this could ever happen again. All of us work incredibly hard every day to prioritise the safety of every single colleague.”

PA

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