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Steel worker left scarred for life

Date:
10 November 2015

International steel giant Tata has been fined £180,000 after pleading guilty to safety breaches after an employee narrowly escaped death when he was showered in scalding molten metal in a massive explosion at its Rotherham plant.

The 49-year-old furnace operative, who has asked not to be named, suffered life-threatening injuries in the incident on 9 March 2012 at Tata Speciality Steels’ premises in Aldwarke Lane, Rotherham.

The worker, from Rotherham, was injured after a control system fault caused 25 tons of molten metal to spill from a furnace. Following the usual practice, the worker and a colleague began to hose water onto the spilled metal to cool it down. Soon after the water made contact, there was a huge explosion and the worker was covered in molten metal.

He staggered to safety where colleagues rushed to his aid and applied a burn shield before he was taken to hospital. Two other employees received minor injuries.

The man, who had worked at Tata and its predecessor since 1979, was in intensive care in a specialist burns unit at Pinderfields hospital, Wakefield, and in an induced coma for three weeks.

He needed numerous skin grafts and reconstructive surgery to his eyes, ears and forehead. He has since managed to return to work but can no longer work in any high-temperature area.

The incident was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which prosecuted Tata Steel UK Ltd for safety breaches.

Sheffield Crown Court heard on Tuesday 10 November 2015 that a few weeks prior to the incident a fire had damaged the furnace control system, which required a temporary fix until new parts were fitted. On the day of the incident an electrician was asked to remove the workaround as it was thought that the fault had been fixed.

Leading up to the explosion, molten metal was being poured from the furnace into a ladle underneath for the first time since the removal of the temporary fix. As the molten metal poured an alarm activated, locking the furnace into position. A furnace worker tried the emergency return, which should have returned the furnace and stopped the molten metal discharging, but this failed.

After the ladle had been filled and automatically moved away, the furnace continued to discharge a further 25 tons of molten metal into a pit below.

HSE’s investigation identified serious safety failings by Tata in recognising and dealing with risks that led to workers being exposed to unnecessary danger. It found Tata had no procedures for dealing with spillages of molten metal, no assessment of the dangers and risks had been carried out and there was no safe system of work in place.

HSE found this led to a situation where it had become normal practice for workers to hose water onto spills. Molten metal will explode if water penetrates the surface. The water is trapped under the surface of the molten metal and rapidly turns to steam vapour causing a sudden rise in pressure and resulting in a massive explosion – a risk well known within the industry.

Tata Steel UK Ltd., Millbank, London, was fined a total of £180,000 and ordered to pay £82,979.26 in costs after pleading guilty to two breaches of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

After the sentencing, HSE inspector Denise Fotheringham said: “This was a horrific incident that left a worker with life-changing injuries, which have had a devastating impact on him and his family. Tragically, it could have been avoided had Tata assessed the risks of dealing with molten metal spillages.

“The company’s business is to make steel, but they had no procedures for dealing with these spillages, leading to employees using hoses to cool the metal. This was very dangerous but the scale of risk had not been recognised by workers, who had received no other information or instruction on what to do.

“The resulting explosion was massive and a man nearly lost his life. He remains badly-scarred by what happened that day.

“Tata no longer uses water to cool spillages and the risk has been eliminated. If the company had done this prior to the incident, this worker and his family would not be where they are today.”  

Notes to Editors:

Photo shows the steel car well with car and ladle under the furnace after tapping

  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. 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. HSE news releases are available at http://press.hse.gov.uk/.

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