The disaster at the Stockline plastics factory in Glasgow on 11 May 2004, which killed nine workers and injured 40, was caused by years of neglect by the company that ran it and by the government watchdog meant to regulate it, according to a report published this week.
Eight experts from four universities have condemned ICL Plastics and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for failing to prevent the gas explosion
Conditions in the factory were poor, safety rules were broken and corners were cut to save money, the report alleges.
But this is denied by ICL, which accuses the report’s authors of using “innuendo” to try to discredit and close down the company.
ICL Plastics and its
subsidiary ICL Tech were together fined a total of £400,000 at the high court in Glasgow last week.
The companies had pleaded guilty to breaching health and safety legislation by failing to protect their workers and by failing to properly assess the risks they were facing.
According to the high court judge Lord Brodie, the company “apparently have a good safety record prior to May 2004, going back to the 1960s.”
The explosion which caused the four-storey factory to collapse was blamed on a leak of liquified petroleum gas from a corroded underground pipe. The court was told the pipe had been inspected by a student on a holiday job, and would only have cost £405 to replace.
According to one of the report’s authors, Professor Andy Watterson from Stirling university, the small fine combined with the poor track record of the company and the HSE amounted to a big problem.
“They all point to a system that gives a nod and a wink to the most negligent employers that they can risk lives with virtual impunity,” he said.
“The surprise is not that tragedy struck at ICL, but that it didn’t happen sooner. Neither the HSE nor the firm took the action necessary to remedy problems over 20 years that had a clear potential for catastrophic failure.”
Watterson described ICL as a “sick firm” because of allegations that workers had suffered occupational illnesses. Employees had regularly developed polymer fume fever, he said, and former workers had reported a series of industrial accidents, some of which required hospital treatment.
The multiple deaths and injuries were not the result of an accident, he argued. They were the inevitable outcome of a
“dangerously dysfunctional” health and safety culture “blighted by faint-hearted regulators”.
The report alleges that health and safety regulations were routinely broken at the factory.
Required safety assessments were not carried out, it says, and employees were not consulted or provided with the necessary protective clothing.
According to workers, safety standards at the plant were “seriously deficient” and they were “actively discouraged” from raising concerns. The HSE is accused of ignoring workers’ warnings about risks.
“Working conditions in the plant were primitive, as management was driven by cost-minimisation and cut corners,” said the report’s co-author, Professor Phil Taylor from the University of Strathclyde.
“Workers complained of heavy-handedness, arbitrariness and favouritism over questions of pay determination.
“Reports suggest that management had long been motivated by a hostility to trade unionism and a reluctance to respond to employees’ concerns or to listen to their voices.”
At the time of the ICL disaster, the HSE was reported to have only 68 inspectors to cover 81,000 workplaces.
The report accuses the HSE of betraying “staggering naivety” about potential problems raised by workers, and relying on “walk-through” inspections announced in advance. The watchdog was guilty of an “abject failure” to share information with the workforce, it says.
The full report is available at » www.hazards.org/icldisaster