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Buncefield prosecution

Welcome to the HSE Podcast.

In this episode we talk to HSE's Deputy Chief Executive Kevin Myers about the prosecution of five companies held responsible for the explosion at Buncefield Oil Storage Depot in 2005.

The company running one part of the Buncefield Oil Terminal was pumping petrol from a pipeline into one of its storage tanks and unfortunately the tank filled up, the gauges that should have told them that it filled up didn't work and they just continued to pump and pump and pump for several hours. It created an explosion which registered 2.4 on the Richter scale.

But first here's a round up of other health and safety news.

HSE's annual report into workplace deaths shows they've fallen to a record low. 151 workers were killed in the year to March 2010 compared to an average over the last 5 years of 220. HSE's Chair Judith Hackitt said the figures were encouraging but also said it was important not to forget that 151 families are mourning the loss of someone who went out to work and didn't come home. Despite the overall improvement, agriculture, the most dangerous industry in Britain, has recorded an increase. 38 workers died on farms in the last year.

A company has been fined £280,000 after an employee had his head crushed between concrete blocks and a metal platform. Brick manufacturers Hanson Building Products were prosecuted by HSE after Peter Clarke was killed checking concrete blocks on a conveyor. HSE Inspector Peter Snelgrove said the tragic accident could have been prevented if Hanson Building Products had carried out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.

HSE Chair Judith Hackitt has said too many people use health and safety as an excuse to hide behind. She made the comments in a letter to Lord Young welcoming his review of health and safety. She said HSE's remit was concerned with addressing real risks and preventing death, injury and ill health to those at work. HSE argues that health and safety is often invoked as a way of disguising an employer's real motives to cut costs or an unwillingness to honestly defend an unpopular decision.

You can stay up to date with the latest news and updates from HSE by visiting the newspages on our website hse.gov.uk/news. If you'd rather get the latest news by email and sign up for free regular eBulletins on a range of different health and safety subjects, sign up at hse.gov.uk/news/subscribe.

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Five companies face a bill of £9.5 million in fines and costs over the fire and explosion at Buncefield Oil Storage Depot in 2005. HSE and the Environment Agency prosecuted the firms following what's been described as one of the biggest fires in peacetime Europe. 43 people were injured in the explosion. HSE Deputy Chief Executive Kevin Myers talked to us about how the incident happened and what the guilty verdicts mean.

Can you first of all just tell me what happened in 2005?

The company running one part of the Buncefield Oil Terminal was pumping petrol from a pipeline into one of its storage tanks and unfortunately the tank filled up, the gauges that should have told them that it filled up didn't work and they just continued to pump and pump and pump for several hours. The petrol spilled over the top of the bund, created a pool of petrol which then created a massive big vapour cloud covering 200 square metres up to 4 metres deep. A mix of petrol vapour and air waiting for a source of ignition. It created an explosion when it was ignited which registered 2.4 on the Richter scale.

What was your job at that time?

I was the Director of the Hazardous Installations Directorate, which is responsible for regulating a range of high hazard sites across Great Britain; offshore oil and gas, coal mining, explosives and also sites like Buncefield. Sites like the Buncefield site are considered to be what are called major hazard installations. These are installations that because of the size of the inventory of chemicals on site and or the processes that they carry out, could if there was a failure to control the risks lead to a major incident above the run of the mill of what you might find in ordinary undertakings. Because of that there is a specific set of regulations designed to address high hazard sites to give a greater degree of regulatory oversight of the them. For sites like Buncefield they are regulated by a joint competent authority which consists of HSE and the Environment Agency because as well as fires and explosions you can have incidents that lead to environmental consequences as we've seen at Buncefield.

So what did you have to do to respond to that explosion?

The reality is in the early stages of an incident like that there isn't actually an awful lot you can do because you know it took them several days to get the fire under control, but we wanted to make sure that we were positioned and available. We couldn't get anybody to site on the day anyway because the roads were grid-locked around there, but it's a matter of contacting colleagues, making sure that we were all mobilised and ready to start our investigation as soon as we could.

Officially, what is the HSE's job when something like this happens?

Our primary role is to prevent incidents like this happening, but when they do happen we carry out investigations to find out why they happened so that we can ensure that lessons are learned both on the relevant site, if necessary more broadly within the industry and also if some of those lessons demonstrate that people didn't comply with their legal obligations to control and manage risk effectively, to hold them to account by taking them to court if necessary.

HSE and the Environment Agency prosecuted the organisations responsible for Buncefield. Who are they and you know, who's to blame?

We prosecuted five different companies because this was quite a complex failure. Total UK Ltd is one of the main companies and HOSL, which is Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd, which is a joint venture between Total and Texaco, were the main players at the centre of this. There were also some shortcomings with some of their subcontractors. The people that were responsible for installing and maintaining these high level alarms. Motherwell Control Systems 2003 Ltd were also held responsible because they failed to properly carry out their technical duties and actually the designer of one of the switches, there were some patent faults in the way in which the switches were designed, TAV Engineering, were also prosecuted. This is a site with lots of interrelated companies. There was another company on site, BPA, British Pipeline Agency, who weren't responsible for the initial causation, but the consequences of the incident demonstrated that there were failings in some of their arrangements for protecting the bunds around some of their tanks and they were prosecuted for that as well, because the failure of some of those bunds led to quite significant contamination of the watercourse.

Could something like this happen again?

We cant live in a zero risk society, so something like this could possibly happen again. Its much less likely to happen because as a result of our investigation it demonstrated some structural failings within the industry's approach to standards on such sites, so working on the recommendations of the independent Major Incident Investigation Board we have worked with the industry to develop new technical standards for all of these sites across the country and we have done work with the industry to make sure that they're all up-rating the standards on their sites to minimise the likelihood of anything like this ever happening again.

Visit the transcript for this Podcast episode at hse.gov.uk/podcasts for more information about the issues discussed in this interview.

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Updated 2011-04-08