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20 metre jet of sulphuric acid burns three workers

06 December 2013

An international chemical company has been prosecuted after three workers suffered acid burns when pipework at its plant near Southampton ruptured, sending a jet of sulphuric acid 20 metres into the air.

The three men were hit by a spray of the corrosive chemical without warning when 50 year-old pipes that had been allowed to corrode finally gave way. The men were all employed by an on-site contractor at the Polimeri Europa UK Ltd chemical plant in Hythe, Southampton.

The incident, on 13 December 2011, was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which prosecuted Polimeri at Southampton Crown Court for serious safety failings.

The court was told the three men had all sustained acid burns to their faces but prompt showering on site and first aid treatment by a fellow worker helped prevent more serious injury. All three were subsequently able to return to work.

The incident involved pipework, used to carry 96 per cent sulphuric acid, which had split close to where the three men were working on an unrelated task in the roadway in between areas of plant. The pressure in the pipe turned the corrosive liquid into a jet spray as it was forced through the small perforation.

HSE’s investigation identified that Polimeri, part of one of Europe’s largest chemical companies, Versalis, did have a plan to inspect their pipework systems in 2008, but initial target dates had been missed. Priority was being given to pipework carrying other hazardous substances, which were considered a greater risk to people on and off site.

HSE found the company had failed to make sure its pipework – the company has around 9,250 metres of it – was in a safe condition and corrosion had been allowed to take hold of the section that carried the acid.

Polimeri Europa UK Ltd, of Cadland Road, Hythe, Southampton, was fined a total of £120,000 and ordered to pay £18,023 in full costs after admitting a breach of both Section 2(1) and Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

After the hearing, HSE Inspector Sally Morgan said: "These workers received acid burns in an incident that could have been prevented. Polimeri Europa UK Ltd should have ensured that their pipework, much of it over 50 years old, was subject to a thorough and timely inspection regime.

"Polimeri is part of an international chemical company and would be well aware of the legal requirement to ensure on-going integrity of the sulphuric acid pipework, but they failed to do this for many years. The result was a system that gradually and invisibly became more and more dangerous.

"High hazard sites must ensure that there are rigorous monitoring procedures in place for such systems.”