A car mechanic suffered severe burns when the inspection pit he was standing in burst into flames, a court has heard.
CCTV of the incident shows Lee Roberts, 33 from Wigan, walking into a pit to remove fuel from underneath a van at Douglas Valley Breakers Ltd’s workshop on Blainscough Lane in Coppull on 22 July 2010. Seconds later, he is seen running out as fire engulfs the pit.
The company was prosecuted today (31 October 2013) after a joint investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service discovered multiple health and safety failings.
Preston Crown Court was told the company regularly removes engine and gearbox oil, coolant, air conditioning liquid and fuel from old vehicles so they can be used for scrap.
It was common practice for employees to puncture the fuel tank on vehicles to allow fuel to drain into an open container on the floor of the pit. An electric drill was also sometimes used to make a hole in the tank.
The investigation concluded that the most likely cause of the fire was that the drained fuel was set alight by a spark from the electric drill or an extension lead in the pit.
The fire grew rapidly due to the presence of petrol and was further fuelled by plastic car body parts and items of vehicle upholstery, spreading to involve the whole of the workshop.
A major response was required from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service to bring the fire under control and, with the assistance of Lancashire Police, to ensure the safety of people nearby.
Mr Roberts sustained severe burns to his hands, legs and nose in the fire, and he has not been able to return to work since the incident. He said:
“I still remember the noise of the petrol fumes igniting and a wave of blue flames engulfing the pit. The pain was instant and intense.
“They put me into an induced coma to stop the pain, and it was at least a couple of days later when I came around. When I woke up, I could feel the pain immediately.
“Even now, more than three years later, I still suffer flashbacks that cause me to wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. I haven’t been able to work since the accident and feel that I no longer want to be a car dismantler – the only trade I have ever known.”
The court was told Douglas Valley Breakers should never have allowed fuel to be drained into inspection pits, where vapours could accumulate, and it should have made sure there were no ignition sources nearby, such as electrical equipment.
The company also failed to ensure fuel was safely removed from the vehicle, despite having a piece of equipment that could be used to drain it into a sealed container.
While inspecting CCTV from the site, HSE inspectors identified several other incidents of unsafe behaviour. These included workers climbing up the outside of storage racks, and riding on the forks of a telehandler to reach items high up on the racks.
Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service also found the company did not have suitable fire detectors and alarms, failed to provide adequate fire safety training to staff, and failed to have appropriate procedures in place for dealing with fires.
Douglas Valley Breakers Ltd, of Bradley Lane in Standish near Wigan, pleaded guilty to two breaches of the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002, one breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and two breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The company was fined a total of £40,000 and ordered to pay £25,000 in costs.
Speaking after the hearing, HSE Inspector David Myrtle said:
“Lee suffered severe burns as a result of this incident but he was very lucky not to have been killed.
“Douglas Valley Breakers was guilty of several serious safety breaches. It failed to properly consider the risks its employees faced while removing fuel from vehicles, or to do anything about them. It was therefore almost inevitable that a worker would be badly burned in a fire.
“The company had the right equipment to do the job properly but instead it allowed workers to stand in a pit surrounded by fuel vapours where just one spark from electric equipment could start a fire.
“If the fuel had been removed in a well-ventilated area, or even outside, without any ignition sources nearby then the severe burns Lee suffered could have been avoided. Sadly, our investigation found the company’s overall attitude to health and safety was poor to say the least.”
Assistant Chief Fire Officer David Russel added:
“Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service is reminding all business owners and occupiers of their legal responsibility to protect their staff and customers against the risk of fire, and warning that we will take action against anyone found to be in breach of fire safety regulations.
“We are here to advise and give support to local businesses and are always willing to help make sure they comply with fire safety legislation. However, where breaches of fire safety regulations place persons at risk of death or serious injury, the fire service will consider prosecution.
“It is a legal requirement for places of work to have a Fire Risk Assessment and guidance is available on our website. If employers are unsure about their own ability to undertake a fire risk assessment within their premises they should seek advice from a competent person.”
Advice and guidance on fire safety in workplaces is available at www.hse.gov.uk/fireandexplosion or www.gov.uk/workplace-fire-safety-your-responsibilities.
Notes to Editors
The footage is available at : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqv555EA6bo
- The Health and Safety Executive is Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety. It aims to reduce work-related death, injury and ill health. It does so through research, information and advice, promoting training, new or revised regulations and codes of practice, and working with local authority partners by inspection, investigation and enforcement. www.hse.gov.uk.
- Regulation 5(1) of the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 states: “Where a dangerous substance is or is liable to be present at the workplace, the employer shall make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to his employees which arise from that substance.”
- Regulation 6(1) states: “Every employer shall ensure that risk is either eliminated or reduced so far as is reasonably practicable.”
- Regulation 4(1) of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 states: “Every employer shall ensure that work at height is properly planned, appropriately supervised, and carried out in a manner which is so far as is reasonably practicable safe.”
- Section 13(1)(a) of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 states: “Where necessary…in order to safeguard the safety of relevant persons, the responsible person must ensure that the premises are, to the extent that it is appropriate, equipped with appropriate fire-fighting equipment and with fire detectors and alarms.”
- Section 21(a) states: “The responsible person must ensure that his employees are provided with adequate safety training at the time when they are first employed, and on their being exposed to new or increased risks.”