A HUGE fire which could have cost the lives of workers at a Doncaster chemical firm was caused by unsafe working practices, a court heard.
Solvents With Safety Ltd had twice been warned about the method used to decant a highly flammable liquid with a very low flashpoint before a fireball erupted at its premises between Bawtry and Harworth in June 2010.
The inferno engulfed the premises and staff were evacuated.
The firm, based on Plumtree Farm industrial estate, off Tickhill Road, was fined £20,000.
Doncaster magistrates were told employees were transferring a highly flammable liquid called toluene from a bulk container into a smaller drum using a pipe from the container, but the pipe was too short.
It meant dropping the liquid from the pipe into the drum, a process called ‘splash filling’ known to generate static electricity - a potential ignition source.
The court was told the flashpoint of toluene is just 4C so on a hot June evening when the process took place, the toluene would have a flammable vapour over its surface.
The build-up of static electricity in the drum is thought to have ignited the vapour and sparked a fire that quickly took hold and spread to other containers of flammable and dangerous solvent mixtures at the site, some of which exploded.
Seven workers managed to escape unharmed after a quick-thinking supervisor ordered them to evacuate the site and called the emergency services.
The blaze was described as a raging inferno.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive found the ‘splash fill’ method was ‘wholly inappropriate’ and posed a clear risk that wasn’t properly assessed.
Worker safety was further compromised by the fact that the pipe used to fill the container wasn’t earthed, and because the personal protective equipment worn by the workers wasn’t anti-static and was therefore unsuitable.
The court also heard the HSE had twice written to Solvents With Safety, in May 2006 and December 2007, to warn of the dangers of splash filling containers.
The company pleaded guilty to breaching the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 and was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £6,860 in costs.
Afterwards HSE inspector Jayne Towey said: “The workforce was extremely lucky to escape unharmed from this incident. The size and scale of the fire was immense.
“Lives were needlessly put at risk because there would have been no blaze at all had the company taken more care with the decanting operation.’’
Brendan Pope, managing director of Safety With Solvents, declined to comment.