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Fire Safety in the chemical industry

  • United Kingdom
  • Health and safety
  • Diversified industrials - Chemicals

07-09-2017

Introduction

As a result of recent, tragic events in the United Kingdom (“UK”), there is an ever increasing spotlight on fire safety across all sectors. Despite a comprehensive legislative framework promoting safety at work and more specifically fire safety, fire in the chemical industry remains a significant risk. In this article we shall touch upon such legislative framework, consider changing attitudes to fire safety, the potential financial and reputational consequences for a company following a fire safety incident and the steps which could be taken to minimise risk.

Legislative framework

The legislative framework governing the chemical industry is significant. In addition to general safety legislation which applies across all industries, including the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, there are a number of significant pieces of legislation which specifically govern and regulate the chemical industry including, the REACH Regulations and the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015 (“COMAH”). The aim of such legislation is to regulate and improve safety in the chemical industry and ensure that industrial facilities which pose a major potential hazard (to their workforce, neighbouring communities and/or to the environment) as a result of the quantities and nature of substances they handle take all necessary measures to prevent major accidents occurring, and if they do occur ensure the consequences are limited. COMAH and other relevant legislation is enforced within the chemical industry by the Health and Safety Executive (the “HSE”), who act as the competent authority in this area.

Fire safety incidents in the chemical industry

Fire safety concerns are not new to the chemical industry and in recent years there have been a number of high profile fires resulting in HSE prosecutions and a warning from the HSE in relation to the importance of maintaining plant and ensuring safe systems in the chemical industry. Examples of recent prosecutions resulting from fires in the chemical industry include:

  • In 2009 a multinational oil and gas company, were fined over significant failings in fire safety which were discovered following two small fires. The company pleaded guilty to three breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and were find £300,000 for fire safety breaches including: blocked escape routes, blocked fire exits, defective fire doors and excessive fire loading
  • In June 2014 a Sheffield tyre reclamation firm was found to have breached parts of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 following a fire at its premises in which an employee was injured; they were find £30,000 for fire safety breaches including: not having a suitable or sufficient risk assessment, lack of staff training and lack of equipment
  • In 2015 a multinational oil and gas company were fined after an uncontrolled release of crude oil caused a major fire which led to the death of a worker at an oil refinery in North Lincolnshire. The multinational were fined £1.4 million after pleading guilty to breaching Regulation 4 of COMAH

 

Reactive behaviour

There is a long history of reactive behaviour following large scale public incidents and the authorities taking decisive action and introducing new regulations, including in relation to industry safety. In the aftermath of the west London tower block tragedy we have seen a number of local politicians resigning, tensions between residents and the authorities as well as a dramatic change of approach across government, from cost-saving to safety-first. The focus to date has been within housing and education but the safety requirements will apply equally across all sectors and it is likely that once the spotlight moves from social housing and schools it will move into the industrial sectors, meaning it will be very important for those working in the chemical industry, which is a high fire risk, to ensure that they are implementing safe working practices and following fire safety protocols at all times. It is not just about ‘Cladding’ it is about overall assessment and management of fire risk.

Reputation and financial impact

As set out above the spotlight on fire safety is likely to move into the industrial sectors, if there was to be a fire or more significantly a fatality following such a widespread focus, the financial and reputational could be vast. Following the introduction of the Health and Safety Sentencing Guideline in 2016 there has been a sharp upwards trend in the level of fines issued. Given the size of many companies operating in the chemical industry this is not something which can be overlooked. In addition to the large fine, consideration must be given to the cost and time of both the internal investigation and the HSE’s investigation as well as any potential civil claims.

Aside from receiving a very large fine, public perception of the company and its reputation could be irretrievably damaged. Recent events have shown how significant the public outcry can be following a major incident; this coupled with twenty-four hour media coverage means that all significant details will be reported and there will be a public “requirement” for someone to take responsibility. “Tone from the Top” is an important message which is repeated time and time again and one which certainly applies to fire safety and the chemical industry. Those in the chemical industry need to ensure all employees are fully engaged in fire safety to ensure that a negative inference cannot be drawn should a fire safety incident arise.

Upward trend

In light of the Grenfell disaster Eversheds Sutherland has noticed a steep upturn in the number of clients requesting legal advice in relation to fire safety and related regulations. Such an upward trend is not entirely unexpected given the issues raised above in relation to fines, financial and reputational damage.

Next Steps for those working in the chemical industry

It is essential that those working in the chemical industry ensure they are familiar with fire safety regulations and their responsibilities but also be on notice that as the fire safety spotlight moves into industry, changes to the regulations may arise. Steps should be taken to ensure that risk assessments are undertaken and kept up to date, appropriate protocols and evacuation plans are in place and fire safety training has been provided. Steps taken should be measured and appropriate but swift to ensure any deficiencies in fire safety are removed as quickly as possible. Those operating in the chemical industry should not just be reactive to fire safety concerns but be proactive going forwards putting in place structured plans for regular review and update.

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