Fire at Universal Freight warehouse, Yorkshire. 13th February 1982

Accident summary

At approximately 10:00 hours workers on site noticed the electrical lights flickering and saw smoke coming from the warehouse. On opening the warehouse door to investigate, a wall of thick smoke confronted an employee. Shutting the door he raised the alarm and called the fire brigade. The warehouse was used for storing large quantities of ICI herbicides in plastic bottles and drums with plastic liners and octyl phenol in paper sacks.

The fire brigade responded promptly and was automatically issued with TREM cards (Transport Emergency Cards) relating to the herbicides and Octyl Phenol. However, by this time the fire had become established and had broken through the roof of the warehouse. The intensity and speed at which the fire developed surprised the fire fighters, as they believed the warehouse contents to be largely incombustible.

Some of the drums/bottles had burst in the fire and their contents were washed down the road and into Hey Beck, a small stream that drains from the site. This resulted in a major pollution incident. Because of the large volumes involved the decision was taken to allow the material to continue to flow into the drains, washed down by the fire brigade. This washing down activity continued for over two days after the incident. The diluted herbicides turned the stream into a brown foaming torrent for several miles. The River Calder was affected by this pollution. The fire fighters were faced with additional problems because of the physical properties of octyl phenol. This substance floats on water producing a flowing pool of burning liquid.

The seriousness of the pollution prompted action to be taken to contact police, the water authority, local radio stations and the press to warn the general public of the dangers of coming into contact with the contaminated water. Farmers were warned to keep livestock away from riverbanks.

The exact cause of this accident is unknown. A worker had been shrink-wrapping paper sacks of octyl phenol onto wooden pallets using a plastic film and a hand held cylinder heat gun, shortly before the incident occurred. It is feasible that the flame from the gun passing too close overheated one of the pallets, causing one or more bags, or the pallet to smoulder, eventually bursting in flames.

Failings in technical measures


'A review of high-cost chemical/petrochemical accidents since 1974', P Fewtrell and I L Hirst, Loss Prevention Bulletin, Issue no. 140, April 1998, pp3-9, Institution of Chemical Engineers.

'Firemen exposed to toxic chemicals in warehouse blaze', Fire Prevention, Issue no. 154, Nov 1982, pp39-40, Fire Protection Association.

'Report on the fire and pollution incident at Woodkirk, 13 February 1982', West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, HIP/AE/103/1981.

MHIDAS: Major Hazard Incident Data Service, Record Number 1352, AEA Technology PLC.

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