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Three firms sentenced after man killed by rocketing gas cylinder

Date:
5 July 2013

Three South East firms have been ordered to pay a total of £685,787.31 in fines and costs for serious safety breaches after a plumber died and six other workers were seriously injured by a barrage of flying gas cylinders.

Adam Johnston, 38, from Sutton, Surrey, was struck by one of 66 heavy cylinders as they rocketed at speeds of up to 170 mph after one toppled over, discharged high-pressure gas, collided with others and set off a frightening chain reaction. 

Mr Johnston, who was working on a construction project in Mundells in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, was walking with a colleague when he was struck by one of the argonite gas cylinders as they were propelled alarmingly around the building. He suffered multiple injuries and died at the scene.

Several other workers, including electricians working in the argonite store room, suffered injuries and long term effects resulting from the trauma of that day.

A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation into the incident, on 5 November 2008, found that Mr Johnston died as a result of a series of unsafe practices relating to the installation of fire suppression equipment at the new-build storage facility. 

Crown House Technologies Ltd of Dartford, Kent, was principal contractor for the project and engaged Kidde Fire Protection Services Ltd, of Slough, Berkshire, to supply and install fire suppression equipment at the new facility under construction.  This work was carried out by Kidde Products Ltd, also from Slough.

In a prosecution brought by the HSE against all three companies for safety breaches, St Albans Crown Court today (5 July 2013) heard that 80 cylinders, nearly two metres high and each weighing 142 kg,  were stored without their safety-critical protection caps and left without being properly secured in racks.

Other trades involved in the construction project were also working next to these potentially unstable cylinders, unaware of the deadly risks involved.

HSE found that one or more of these cylinders was de-stabilised and probably fell over, causing its unprotected valve to shear off near the cylinder neck. This released an uncontrolled jet of liquified argonite gas under high pressure [equivalent to some 300 bar] the force of which caused the cylinder to move, colliding with others. These, in turn, were also knocked over and sustained similar damage.

A chain reaction developed rapidly and for several minutes shocked and terrified workers desperately sought shelter as they endured a barrage of heavy cylinders rocketing around them. This continued until 66 of the 80 cylinders had been discharged. 

Some of the cylinders travelled at estimated speeds of up to 170mph and developed sufficient energy to penetrate walls and ceiling voids, travelling into more remote parts of the building.

Mr Johnston, a father of two, who was employed by Crown House Technologies Ltd, was struck by one of the cylinders as it was propelled from the room. Six other workers sustained injuries. The building itself was severely damaged.  

Crown House Technologies Ltd pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to breaching Section 2 and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 was fined £117,000 and ordered to pay costs of £119,393.65

Kidde Fire Protection Services Ltd pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to breaching Regulations 6 and  13(2) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007and was fined £165,000 and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £59,696.72.

Kidde Products Ltd, pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to breaching Section 2 and Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £165,000 and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £59,696.72.

The court was told that the three companies involved failed to recognise the significant risks involved in the project or to carry out an adequate risk assessment. The principal contractor and the main contractors failed to co-ordinate the scheduled work activities or to co-operate meaningfully in light of the risks. There had also been insufficient training and supervision.

After the case, HSE Principal Inspector Norman Macritchie, said:

"Mr Johnston had no control over the chain of events which led to his tragic death. He died while going about his business as a result of the shortcomings of others. It is only by chance that this incident did not cause further fatalities.

"There is little evidence that those involved were competent to undertake this work, or that safe systems of work were provided, or that there was suitable cooperation between the contractors involved.

"Employees of other companies were allowed to enter the argonite store while it was potentially unsafe to do so, and there is no evidence that anyone explained the risks to them, or acted effectively to control these risks.

"This incident was devastating for his family and yet it could have been avoided had there been effective planning, management, monitoring and coordination of the relevant activities.

"Health and safety is sometimes dismissed as an unnecessary burden on businesses but this tragic case clearly demonstrates its true importance to those at the ‘sharp end’ of the industry."

Notes to editors

A photo of Adam Johnston is available from Cabinet Office Regional News Network.

  1. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 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
  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."
  3. Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety At Work etc Act 1974 states: "It shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety."
  4. Section 6 of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 states: "All persons concerned in a project on whom a duty is placed by these Regulations shall co-ordinate their activities with one another in a manner which ensures, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of persons (a)carrying out the construction work; and (b)affected by the construction work."
  5. Section13(2) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 states: "Every contractor shall plan, manage and monitor construction work carried out by him or under his control in a way which ensures that, so far as is reasonably practicable, it is carried out without risks to health and safety."

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