Plymouth boat repair business prosecuted for explosion danger at Sutton Harbour
A Plymouth boat repair business has been prosecuted after it sent two employees to carry out work in a fishing boat’s diesel tank that could have led to an explosion and put them at risk of being overcome by fumes.
The two men, one aged just 17 and both untrained, were so worried about the dangers they faced that they stopped work and sought advice from a harbourmaster. This led to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) launching an investigation and preventing their employer, C & L Marine Ltd of Plymouth, from carrying out any further work in the tank.
Plymouth Magistrates Court today (18 March) heard that C & L Marine Ltd had been asked to carry out cleaning and welding work to repair a fuel leak in a tank on the Margaret of Ladram in Sutton Harbour, Plymouth, in late May and June 2011.
The fuel tank was one deck down and accessed from a small manhole below the vessel’s net store. It was 4.5m long and 2.25m deep at its most extensive point and was curved in line with the shape of the vessel’s hull.
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They were required to use buckets to empty the tank of around 600 litres of residual seawater and diesel, and rags to clean the inside in preparation for the welding.
Magistrates heard the two men wore normal work overalls and had no face masks on the first day. They swapped roles regularly to provide a respite from fumes and the cramped working space in the tank. One later recalled having a heavy feeling in his chest and finding it difficult to breath when he was in the tank and said he felt dizzy and faint.
The next day, they prepared the inside of the tank for the welding work. One man used a grinder, causing sparks to fall on his workmate who was holding a lamp to illuminate the work, and creating significant amounts of fumes.
The two finally abandoned the job and contacted staff at Sutton Harbour for advice. The Harbourmaster visited the boat and halted further work after the company failed to provide documentation and permits to show the tank was safe to work in.
HSE was informed and served a prohibition notice on C& L Marine Ltd preventing any similar work until safe working methods for confined space work were in place.
HSE found that no gas monitor was used to measure available oxygen in the tank and no gas-free certificate was obtained before beginning the task.
Although they had an ordinary electric fan inside the tank to blow the fumes out on the second day, this proved ineffective. A second fan was also put outside in the net store. Neither of these fans had an extraction hose fitted so were ineffective and just blew the fumes about. C & L had also failed to do any gas monitoring - used to measure the available oxygen or for the presence of explosive gases in the tank and had no gas-free or safe entry certificates in place before beginning the task.
Both men were unsupervised, largely untrained and unfamiliar with the tank work they were undertaking. In addition, C & L Marine Ltd had not considered the need to provide any rescue equipment such as harnesses, lifelines or lifting equipment or other appropriate emergency arrangements.
C & L Marine, of the Fish Quay, Sutton Harbour, Plymouth, pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 3(1) of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and three breaches of the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997. The company was fined a total of £20,000 and ordered to pay £23,000 in costs.
HSE Inspector David Cory, speaking after the hearing, said:
“C & L Marine’s lack of preparation for this work showed very significant failings which could have led to tragedy – they should have been well aware of the risks cleaning and then welding in the diesel fuel tank would have posed.
“The tank should have been thoroughly steam cleaned or jet-washed instead of being bucketed out and mopped with rags. There was no test for the presence of noxious or flammable gases or whether there was sufficient oxygen in the tank before the men began work.
“If the diesel fuel residues had been sufficiently heated they would have created fumes which could have led to an explosion or fire. Ventilation was either absent or woefully inadequate.
“The company didn’t have any emergency equipment or rescue plan. When staff are in a confined space a colleague should also be watching over the work – these are often called ‘top men’ or ‘sentries’. This was also missing.”
“All employers involved in confined space working must consider their activities properly, train and equip staff sufficiently, and reduce and control risks as much as possible. All confined space work is high risk and if not properly controlled can go badly wrong, very quickly.
“One of the workers put at serious risk was a young man just beginning his working career. Young people at work need extra training, supervision and guidance and sometimes restrictions on what they are allowed to do.”