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Yorkshire Water fined £733K over 'wholly avoidable' death

Yorkshire Water has been fined £733,000 after a fitter suffered fatal burns when his clothing was ignited by sparks.

Leeds Crown Court heard that, on 20 July 2015, Michael Jennings was working in the bottom of a dry well, a designated confined space, on the end of the disused Lane 1 of the brewery Trade Waste treatment plant at the Tadcaster Sewage Treatment Works. The adjoining Lane 2 was still in service.

The brewery Trade Waste plant was the only Yorkshire Water effluent treatment plant to use oxygen gas injection to assist the clean-up process. Mr Jennings and a colleague had been tasked with changing the stop valve on the end of the disused Lane 1 drain pipe that emerged into the bottom of the dry well.

Mr Jennings was using an angle grinder to cut through corroded bolts when sparks from the grinding wheel impinged onto his overalls, bursting into flames. He suffered whole body burns and died in Pinderfields Hospital two days later.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the drain valve was half-opened and the atmosphere within the dry well was oxygen-enriched, greatly increasing the risk of fire.

It also found that a near-miss report had been recorded at the same location in September 2014. Employees had found the interior of Lane 1 to be heavily oxygen-enriched and had alerted local managers to the problem. 

Following this near miss the company did carry out an investigation but reached the wrong conclusion that the oxygen enrichment was due to residual oxygen and that the issue had been resolved. This had implications for future work in that the company proceeded on the basis there was no further risk of oxygen enrichment within Lane 1.

The HSE investigation showed that the company’s risk assessment and permit to work procedures had been inadequate. There were no site-specific procedures in place and the generic risk assessment template form did not include oxygen enrichment as a possible hazard.

The employees working on the day of the incident were not familiar with the site and they were not aware of the September 2014 near miss. This meant that they did not have the knowledge or experience to recognise that oxygen-enrichment of the dry well was a potential hazard when the valve was taken off or opened.

Yorkshire Water pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and was fined £733,000 and costs of £18,818.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector John Micklethwaite said: “This was a tragic and wholly avoidable incident, caused by the failure of the company to implement an adequate and effective safe system of work for work in a confined space.

“Those in control of work activities have a duty to identify hazards that could arise, to eliminate or to mitigate them, and to devise suitable safe systems of work. The risk assessment process is central to this role.

“The employer also has a duty to provide the necessary information, instruction and training to his workers, and to provide an appropriate level of supervision to ensure that the work can be carried out safely and without risks to health.”

Yorkshire Water chief executive Richard Flint said: "The tragic events of 20 July 2015 have had a profound effect on all of us at Yorkshire Water, both personally and professionally.

"Whilst we cannot change what happened to Mick, we must ensure this terrible accident leaves a permanent legacy on the business and that we do everything possible to prevent something like this happening again."

Author: Robin Hackett, editor, WWT
Topic: Policy & Regulation
Tags: fines , health and safety , Yorkshire Water

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