Disasters: learning the lessons for a safer world

Disasters thumb
  • by David Eves
  • Price £30
  • Softback, 256 pages
  • ISBN 978 0 901357 46 5

This book, illustrated in colour throughout, looks at over 90 accidents, incidents and safety failures from the last 200 years. Some, like Aberfan, Chernobyl and Hillsborough, are so famous that they are known simply by a single place name. Others have now faded from the public consciousness but still have important lessons for us today.

Disasters: learning the lessons for a safer world is intended to reinforce our collective memory of these hard-earned lessons and help to prevent future catastrophes. It is also a tribute both to the victims of past mistakes and to the achievements of health and safety professionals and others in learning the lessons from them.

Example

The jet fire at Hickson and Welch Limited, Yorkshire, England, 1992

On 21 September 1992 the HSE’s Area Director in Leeds telephoned me to report that a catastrophe had just occurred at a chemical works in Yorkshire, possibly the most serious incident since Flixborough. We set an investigation in train immediately.

What happened?

Hickson and Welch Ltd was a chemical manufacturing company of long standing and a major employer in the Yorkshire town of Castleford. The company had decided that a batch still that had been installed in the nitrotoluenes area of the plant in 1961 was to be cleaned of accumulated residues – the first time this had been done in 30 years.

A tarry sludge of residue some 14 inches deep had been measured at the bottom of the still and reported to management, who assumed it consisted of a thermally stable tar. Neither the sludge nor the vessel’s atmosphere was analysed. The operators were told to apply steam to the bottom of the vessel to soften the sludge, and this was done. The residue could then be raked out manually through a manhole opening, accessible from a scaffolding platform.

Several men began cleaning the still, working from the scaffold, using metal rakes. After about an hour the vessel’s temperature gauge was seen in the control room some distance away to be reading 48º C. The men were told to cut off the steam, and did so.

By around 1.20, during lunchtime, most of the men had left the raking job and only one man remained on the scaffold. He stopped raking when he noticed a blue light inside the still, which immediately turned orange. He leapt for his life from the scaffold as a jet of flame suddenly roared out of the manhole, wrecking the scaffold and hurling the manhole cover into the centre of the control building. Like a giant blowtorch, the horizontal flame destroyed the control room and played against the wall of the main office block 55 metres away, setting it on fire. Simultaneously, burning vapours jetted upwards from the vessel’s rear top vent.

The jet fire is estimated to have lasted one minute before subsiding from lack of fuel, but by then several other fires had started. These were extinguished by the local fire brigade, who attended with 22 appliances and over 100 firefighters.

Sadly, it was discovered that two workers had been killed in the control room, their escape impeded by an inward opening door. Two other men who escaped from the room died later from the burn injuries they had suffered while escaping. In the office block the body of a woman was found in the lavatories where she had been overcome by smoke. Fortunately, no one else was in the offices during lunchtime. Several vehicles in the car park were burnt out.