A refurbishment company for alloy wheels was fined £32,000 after a 16-year-old apprentice was found unconscious after being exposed to hazardous chemical vapours in the workplace.
South Tyneside Magistrates’ Court heard how the teenage employee of Wheelnut Ltd, entered a room used for the chemical stripping process, which contained barrels of dichloromethane, methanol and hydrofluoric acid. When it was realized the employee had not returned, he was discovered unconscious slumped over one of the barrels.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found a risk assessment for the chemical wheel stripping process was not suitable or sufficient. Appropriate control measures should have included suitable exhaust ventilation in the room as well as respiratory protective equipment (RPE) for the employees. RPE was provided but it was not maintained in an efficient or effective state. Several parts of it were damaged and the air feed to it from the compressor was not filtered correctly. The investigation found that on this occasion, and previously, the employee was not wearing the RPE when he entered the room. Employees were not provided with suitable and sufficient information, instruction, and training with regards to the risks involved with using the chemicals, particularly the risks involved with using dichloromethane.
Wheelnut Ltd of Whickham Bank, Swalwell, Newcastle upon pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. In addition to a £32,000 fine, the company was ordered to pay full costs of £1,718.50.
Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Joy Craighead said: “Breathing in DCM vapour can produce narcotic effects and, at high concentrations, unconsciousness and death. In this instance, the boy made a full recovery, but it could have easily resulted in his death.”
While correct selection and fit testing are essential parts of the process, correct training and regular maintenance are also vitally important to ensure worker respiratory protection.
With regular maintenance, the damaged air feed would have been picked up before it was needed, and the filters would have been checked and tested for suitability. Damage to any part of respiratory protective equipment can potentially introduce contaminant leaks into the device and render it useless. HSE guidelines state that cleaning and maintenance records should be kept for all re-usable RPE devices as part of your respiratory protection plan, to comply with legal regulations.
With correct training, the employee (and all employees) would better understand the importance of RPE and the potential danger they were putting them self in when exposed to different hazards without the correct RPE. The provision of face fit testing (when tight-fitting RPE is required) and adequate RPE training are legal requirements for the employer when RPE is required in the workplace.
This near-tragic example highlights the potential severity of the situation when new staff aren’t made aware of the dangers in the workplace.
For information about RPE, filters and fit testing, please get in touch with our RPE Specialists on:
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