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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Steelworks Health And Safety Disasters

Some employers appear more than once in recently reported health and safety prosecutions. For example:

Corus (UK) Ltd, the steelmaking company, was fined £170,000 in April 2007 after a worker was killed by a falling crane.

In July 2003 Shane Eastwood, an employee of Corus, was working at the company’s site in Rotherham. He was working on machinery in an engineering workshop under an overhead crane. The crane’s hoist block, which weighed 260 kg, fell seven metres onto Eastwood, causing fatal injuries.

A limit switch, which was designed to cut power to the crane if its block was hoisted too far, and which was safety-critical, had failed. As a result, the hoist rope snapped and the block fell.

The accident had been entirely avoidable. Corus had failed to properly maintain the limit switch. The switch was defective and had progressively failed.

This was reported to have been the ninth time in five years that Corus has been fined for health and safety offences.

Corus was also fined £1.3million at Swansea Crown Court on December 15, 2006, for health and safety offences relating to fatalities at its Port Talbot plant.

In November 2001 a blast furnace exploded at the plant. The explosion lifted the top half of the furnace two feet into the air and resulted in molten metal falling on workers. Three were killed, twelve suffered serious burn injuries and five others were injured. The explosion was caused by water leaking into the white hot centre of the furnace, which had been in operation for 47 years. Some of the injured, and those who witnessed the incident, were still receiving psychological treatment five years after the explosion.

The Crown Court Judge criticised the company’s casual attitude to safety. During a two-day hearing, evidence was given of a catalogue of errors which resulted in the explosion. These included years of recommendations by senior employees at the plant, relating to the furnace, which were ignored.

In 1993 a decision was taken to prolong the life of the blast furnace. A committee was set up to discuss and report on the furnace four times a year. The committee made a series of recommendations, none of which were acted upon.

One example was a recommendation to carry out a comparative study into the benefits of electrical and diesel pumps. The failure of a succession of electrical pumps, which circulated cooling water to the furnace, resulted in the explosion. The furnace had suffered many pump failures before the explosion.

The power plant log for the period before the incident showed that an electrical transformer had been damaged by rain and needed repair. A plan to repair it was the start of events which eventually caused the incident. The transformer had to be partially isolated before repairs were carried out. This meant that the current to a furnace pump was transferred to another transformer. This operation needed monitoring to ensure that voltage remained constant.

The team of employees working on the furnace on the day before the explosion was not told about the repair work. When the current was transferred, the voltage in the transformer dropped. This caused a pump to trip and an auxiliary pump, which then came into operation, also tripped. The result of this was that water to cool the system ceased to circulate and approximately 50 tons leaked into the furnace. Employees who were sent to deal with the leak thought that it had been repaired. In fact, the water remained in the furnace. It reacted with the molten metal in the furnace and caused the explosion when the metal core was reheated on the next day.

Corus pleaded guilty to breaches of health and safety law. Defending counsel stated that this did not mean that the company acknowledged that it had foreseen that lives would be at risk. Modern blast furnaces went back to the Victorian era. There were no records of similar explosions having happened. The inquest into the deaths had recorded verdicts of accidental death. An internal report issued by Corus at the time of the inquest had concluded that the explosion was neither foreseen nor foreseeable.

Senior management responsible for the furnace had met to discuss problems with it one hour before the explosion. The risk of a discharge, but not an explosion, had been discussed at the meeting.

The families of the victims of the explosion were reported to have made the following comments:

  • They were disgusted and shocked at the outcome.

  • It was quite unbelievable that the company should have been fined such a meagre sum.

  • Corus should have been fined up to the maximum allowable. A large fine would have ensured that other companies sat up and listened and understood the consequences of not doing enough for health and safety.

  • The judge had stated that Corus had made £143 million this year after tax, so what they had been ordered to pay was a pinprick.

  • A spokesperson for Community, the trade union representing steelworkers, is reported to have made the following comments:

  • The fine was substantial but the union would have expected it to be higher. It did not begin to reflect the scale of suffering of the workers and their families and of the traumatised community of Port Talbot.

  • The union had put all its resources at the disposal of the community and had spent more than £500,000.

  • The disaster had been horrific, with hot molten metal flying everywhere.

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