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Hospital gas leak leads to prosecution for major construction firm

Date:
25 March 2015

Laing O’Rourke Construction Ltd has been fined for causing a major gas leak at a Staffordshire hospital.

The incident happened at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire (now called Royal Stoke University Hospital) on 8 January 2014 during work to create a new car park and install new drains. An excavator struck a buried plastic gas pipe causing significant damage to the pipe and a large release of gas.

The hospital declared a major incident and set up an exclusion zone around the pipe, which included the main internal road through the hospital’s grounds, causing traffic chaos on surrounding roads.

Stafford Magistrates’ Court was told today (25 March) that the pipe fed an energy centre that provided 90% of the hospital’s heating. Fortunately, the energy centre was duel fuel and engineers were able to quickly switch the heating supply to oil.

It took 90 minutes to stop the leak, during which time a significant quantity of gas was released into the atmosphere.

A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that Laing O’Rourke had failed to implement a safe system of work and follow relevant guidance for safe digging when dealing with buried underground services.

HSE guidance states that the position of plastic (PE) gas pipes should be located by hand digging before mechanical excavation begins.  It also states that mechanical excavators should not be used within 500mm of a buried gas pipe.

Laing O’Rourke Construction Ltd, of  Anchor Boulevard, Admirals Park, Crossways, Dartford, Kent, was fined £14,000 and ordered to pay costs of £1,723 after pleading guilty to breaching Regulation 34(3) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Andrew Bowker said:

“As a large, experienced construction company, Laing O’Rourke were well aware of the relevant guidance on dealing with underground services.  On this occasion there was a general breakdown in the company’s comprehensive health and safety procedures for preventing such an incident.

“It failed to suitably plan and monitor the work; failed to hand dig trial holes to locate a known gas pipe; failed to have a suitable exclusion zone between the excavator and the pipe; and failed to use safe digging methods to expose the pipe.

“The result was a highly dangerous situation that had the potential to expose construction workers, hospital staff, patients and visitors to an initial flash fire and subsequent fire and explosion risk.”

HSE’s guidance for safe digging, Avoiding Danger from Underground Services, can be found at http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/books/hsg47.htm

Notes to editors

1. The Health and Safety Executive is Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety. It aims to reduce 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. Regulation 34(3) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 states: No construction work which is liable to create a risk to health or safety from an underground service, or from damage to or disturbance of it, shall be carried out unless suitable and sufficient steps (including any steps required by this regulation) have been taken to prevent such risk, so far as is reasonably practicable.

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