It is absolutely vital that employers make sure they take every precaution available to them to protect their workers, especially when there is the potential for explosion, said Michael Slade, managing director of Bibby Consulting & Support, employment law specialists and health and safety advisors.
Mr Slade was responding to the news that Cemex had been fined £200 000 by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) following the death of a worker, 28-year-old Peter Reynolds, in an explosion at its Rugby plant in 2008. The company was also ordered to pay costs of £172 000.
While Mr Reynolds was clearing a blockage in a mixer, there was a violent explosion of steam and dust from inside the machine. The force of the explosion was so great that it blew him out through the side of the building on to the road 10 metres below. An ambulance crew attended but Mr Reynolds was pronounced dead at the scene.
HSE's investigation into the incident found that Cemex had recognised the potential for blockages to cause explosions as steam pressure built up in the mixer – but had taken no action to prevent them. Cemex's protection against the build up of pressure was for the plant to be continuously vented when processing waste cement dust, but it frequently blocked. The company could have made a number of changes to the mixer to reduce the flow of dust and improve the venting and cooling systems, or devised a new system of work. However, no action was taken and employees were expected to operate a piece of machinery that was known to be dangerous, the HSE said.
The court heard the company had failed to review its risk assessment following a previous incident in May 2006, when another man was injured using the same machine. This explosion had bent a metal-clad external wall, pushing it out by 50cm.
Speaking after the hearing, HSE principal inspector Neil Craig said: "This was an entirely avoidable tragedy, which has left a young family without a husband and a father. If Cemex had investigated the previous incident properly, Mr Reynolds would still be alive today."
Mr Slade agreed, saying: "There could be no more dramatic and tragic proof of the importance of carrying out regular risk assessments and having a health and safety programme that is robust, recorded and reviewed.
"It should not take the death of a worker for a company to realise the error of its ways. The simple fact that the company could have saved thousands if it had only put its health and safety systems on a professional footing pales in significance when set against the fact it could have saved a man’s life.”