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Atomic Weapons Establishment sentenced for control failings

28 May 2013

The Atomic Weapons Establishment PLC (AWE PLC) has been ordered to pay more than £280,000 in fines and costs for significant failings relating to its use and control of explosive materials after a worker was injured when a fire broke out in an explosives processing building.

Ashley Emery, 29, from Basingstoke, burnt his left arm and face in the incident at the company’s Aldermaston base in Berkshire on 3 August 2010.

Reading Crown Court heard today (28 May) that he was breaking dry nitrocellulose (NC) into a plastic bucket which contained methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) – both volatile agents – as part of the process of producing a lacquer.

Mr Emery moved away from the mixture, removed his respirator, and returned to have a better look at things, at which point the contents of the bucket ignited and produced a fireball. He managed to flee before the fire took hold, spread and seriously damaged the building.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigated the fire and established that had AWE Plc recognised all the hazards of working with dry NC, and implemented appropriate safeguards, then the incident could have been avoided.

The company possessed data sheets identifying the potential risks associated with the use of NC and MEK. These provided direct guidance about situations to be avoided when using the substances, but insufficient heed was paid to them.

HSE inspectors also identified issues with the storage of unnecessary hazardous materials in the manufacturing area, and the fact a number of explosives processes were taking place at the same time.

AWE Plc, of Aldermaston, near Reading, was fined £200,000, ordered to pay £80,258 in costs, plus £2,500 in compensation to the injured man after pleading guilty to a single breach of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

After sentencing HSE inspector Dave Norman said:

"The fire could have caused multiple casualties and it was entirely preventable had better control systems been in place.

"The failure to instigate such controls was dependent on AWE identifying potential hazards and risks, all of which were well documented, but that simply did not happen.

"The building and equipment within it did not comply with the-then current standards required for storing and handling explosives, which are potentially sensitive to static electricity, nor for storing and handling extremely flammable liquids.

"The risks associated with the lacquer preparation were not fully recognised by the company. This was compounded by a decision to run numerous explosives processes at the same time and in the same building, which is completely unacceptable by industry standards.

"We also found that the personal protective equipment (PPE) provided for employees, principally a lack of flame retardant coveralls, was inadequate.

"This collection of shortcomings demonstrates that there were failures of supervision, monitoring and auditing over time, including in relation to the conducting, validating and approval of risk assessments.

"Companies working with hazardous substances must take extreme care at all times and in all aspects of their operations."

Notes to editors

  1. 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.
  2. Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 states: "It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees."

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