Agricultural company fined after toxic chemical released

A global agricultural company has been fined £200,000 after a potentially lethal weedkiller was released from a chemical plant in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.

At least 3.5 tonnes of paraquat dichloride accidentally escaped from a tank container at the site on December 12, 2014. Paraquat has a tarnished reputation as it is known to be harmful to human health. Swallowing just five to 10 millilitres of the substance could be potentially fatal.

Avoidable and foreseeable accident

Evidence presented to Leeds Crown Court suggested that the dry coupling connecting a hose to the tanker was defective. In addition, one of the tank's valves had not been vented, causing pressure to build up inside the tank.

When an employee moved a handle, the combination of defects caused a valve to open. The employee was sprayed with the highly pressurised weed killer on his face and upper body.

Fortunately, the employee was wearing personal protective equipment which prevented the substance from entering his mouth, nose and eyes. The man immediately washed off the chemical using an emergency drench shower and suffered no injury.

A colleague who was standing nearby at the time of the accident was also unharmed and was able to raise the alarm.

No risk to the public or employees

The release continued unabated for approximately half an hour until emergency fire services shut it down. By then, up to 3.8 tonnes of paraquat had escaped into the air.

The chemical was blown towards storage areas and there was no risk to the public or to the 400 employees who were working nearby. The outcome could have been different had the wind been blowing in a different direction at the time of the escape.

Health and Safety Executive investigation

The Health and Safety Executive, the national watchdog for work-related health and safety issues, prosecuted the company. Among the allegations, it was suggested that:

  • The tanker valves and equipment were not maintained in an efficient state due to serious shortcomings in the company's planned preventative maintenance program; and
  • The company had failed to manage risk and take the necessary steps to prevent a major accident.

The company pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 4 of the Control Of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999 and Regulation 5 (1) of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998. They were ordered to pay fines of £200,000 for the offences and costs of £13,041.

The company has since stated that the omissions in their maintenance practices have been rectified, and that documentation had been provided to employees regarding the venting of tanker valves.

Making an injury claim

In this instance, no one was injured and the incident did not lead to a personal injury claim. In general, however, where a company has been found liable for a breach of health and safety legislation, it is likely that a personal injury claim made by anyone injured as a result of the violation will succeed.