"Cavalier" chemical company fined after factory inferno

Shropshire-based Cox Chemicals has been fined £20,500 for five health and safety offences in the aftermath of a serious blaze at its Telford factory last year. Magistrates said that the company had taken a "cavalier approach" to working practices and chemical storage.

Cox Chemicals bought, mixed and repackaged pesticides and other compounds for sale to the Third World at its site at Overley, near Telford. The company had had numerous dealings with the local waste regulation authority over a string of irregular practices at the site, and in February 1993 the factory was severely damaged by a major fire (ENDS Report 223, p 5 ).

Ironically, the firm changed its name to Cox Environmental shortly after the fire, just as the National Rivers Authority became concerned that the incident may have polluted the underlying sandstone aquifer.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) culminated in six charges being brought against the company and two against its Managing Director, Brian Shand. The case was heard by Wolverhampton magistrates and lasted three days as the defendants contested all the charges.

The company was convicted of breaching sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which require employers to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and safety of their employees and of others, respectively. The breaches related to a string of inadequacies in facilities, working practices and management at the site.

One of the most serious defects was the haphazard storage of toxic and flammable materials. During the fire drums of chemicals exploded and were thrown out of the blaze, endangering fire-fighters and others off-site.

The company was also found guilty of three charges under the Highly Flammable Liquids and Liquified Petroleum Gases Regulations 1972. These concerned the unsafe storage and conveyance of highly flammable liquids, and the proximity of sources of ignition to places where dangerous concentrations of flammable vapours might be present.

However, Cox was acquitted of a further charge under section 33(1)(g) of the 1974 Act relating to a breach of a prohibition notice. The HSE issued the notice to prevent material being moved off-site after the fire before analyses had assessed the levels of contamination present. The court heard from a former employee that Mr Shand had ordered the removal of 23 drums of the organophosphate insecticide temephos.

Mr Shand was also cleared of a charge of obstructing HSE inspectors, contrary to section 33(1)(h) of the 1974 Act, as well as a separate charge under section 37(1) that the failure to comply with the prohibition notice was due to his neglect, consent or connivance.

Cox was fined £8,000 for each offence under the 1974 Act, and £1,500 for each offence under the 1972 regulations. It was also ordered to pay costs of £7,000. In deciding the penalties, a magistrate observed that while Mr Evans had argued that "the firm's was not a Heath Robinson approach..that seems to me to be a very fitting description of conditions there."

In mitigation, the company said that the fire had caused damage estimated at £2 million, and it had spent £400,000 in efforts to restore the site.

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