Worker Has Lucky Escape from Fuel Tank Explosion

An employee of a contractor in Hampshire suffered burns to his face and wrist after a fuel tank he was working on unexpectedly exploded.

The incident, which took place in March 2012, came about as the employee was told to carry out work on decommissioning a fuel tank, cutting up the tank in order to remove it as it was not being used.

He was contracted to remove two 20000 litre fuels tanks from the former filling station in Iwerne Minster near Blandford Forum. Before removing the tank that exploded, fuel was emptied and the tank de-gassed so it appeared there was no flammable material or vapour left. The tank atmosphere was monitored using a gas detector until a zero gas reading was given.

Although this investigation did flag up no gas presence, there was still residue fuel vapour left over in the tank. This vapour was ignited when the worker started using a disk cutter to carry out the work; the sparks from the cutting ignited the atmosphere, causing the explosion to occur.

When investigating the incident the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) found that the incident had been caused by a number of safety failings by the contractor, Laurence Greenland. They found that:

  • The safety assessment carried out before the work started was inadequate and there was no safe system of work in place
  • The gas detector used to monitor the atmosphere had not been suitably calibrated and may have given false readings
  • The tank had not been properly cleaned and flammable residues remained
  • Although it would not have completely eliminated explosion risk, cold-cutting techniques such as a normal saw rather than a mechanical disk cutter should have been used

The explosion caused burns to the face and wrist of the contractor, but he was lucky to escape with his life at all. Debris from the explosion also damaged a number of properties nearby.

HSE Inspector James Powell said:

“A number of failings led to this incident, which was entirely preventable.  It was only a matter of good fortune that the worker was not killed and other workers and members of the public not seriously injured.

“This case emphasises the need for employers to give proper consideration to work hazards before they place their employees in situations where they might be put at significant risk. Laurence Greenland failed to manage the risks of explosion and eliminate the risk of injury to workers and the public, and damage to property.

“People working with potentially explosive equipment should follow the safety procedures set out in industry guidance and all employees engaged in such work must be given adequate training in the risks involved and the precautions required.”

The contractor who employed the injured worker was ordered by a Hampshire court to pay £4000 and £5000 in costs after they pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and Regulation 6(3)(a) of the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmosphere Regulations 2002.

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