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Hazards special report, Summer 2009
  ICL Stockline inquiry exposes failing safety system
Stockline explosion image: HSE
The inquiry into Glasgow’s deadly ICL Stockline factory explosion was of seriously limited scope. Even so, it couldn’t fail to unearth desperate failings in the UK’s enforcement of workplace safety, says Hazards editor Rory O’Neill.

A complete disaster
Hazards 107, July-September 2009

Long before the Lord Gill’s inquiry into the ICL Stockline disaster, investigations had established a corroded liquefied petroleum gas pipe led to the 2004 ICL Stockline explosion in which nine workers died and over 30 were injured (Hazards 100). Bereaved relatives and campaigners, who had hoped for a more forensic examination of the wider malaise afflicted the regulatory system, were disappointed this was also the main focus of Gill’s report.

But Lord Gill's inquiry into the tragedy could not avoid recognising the problem went beyond a rotten pipe and a rotten, criminally negligent, employer. Scotland’s second most senior judge ruled that “serious weaknesses” in Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspection procedures contributed to the “a disaster that could have been avoided”. His inquiry found HSE had failed to understand the dangers at the plant and did not carry out prompt follow-up visits.

Photo: Eve Barker
CUTS HURT  HSE says it has done “a great deal” since the ICL Stockline tragedy. It has – it’s slashed inspector numbers, inspections, enforcement and convictions.

The 16 July 2009 publication of the Gill inquiry’s report prompted families of the victims to call on HSE to end “soft touch regulation.” They said HSE had allowed the factory owners to “flout” safety rules for years.

Sixteen years before the deadly blast, in 1988, an HSE inspector had recommended the corroded pipes be dug up to establish the level of decay. He noted that the LPG gas tank in the factory was “the worst I’ve ever seen”.

Nothing was done. HSE did not know this because it failed to follow up. Subsequent inspections never even mentioned LPG and its dangers. The Gill inquiry, set up in January 2008 at a cost of about £1 million to the public purse, was told the rotting pipework could have been replaced for £405. But with no intervention by the safety watchdog, the inquiry found the plant's underground LPG pipe was viewed as “out of sight, out of mind” by the owner.

On 11 May 2004, the seeping gas ignited, the factory was flattened and dozens of lives, victims and their families, were devastated. Rosemary Doyle, whose daughter Annette was killed, said the directors of ICL Plastics and ICL Tech had got away with a crime – an August 2007 conviction for safety offences resulted in £400,000 in fines to be footed from company coffers. “I have always thought they should be taken to court in a criminal case,” she said. “It was through their negligence that people died. Directors must be held responsible... there has been no-one willing to stand up and say this was my responsibility.”

Rosemary believes the factory owners were guilty of a catalogue of shocking safety offences which went far beyond the immediate cause of the blast. She said: “I felt it was the whole workplace. I think so much more needs to be done to ensure that companies take health and safety into account and that directors are responsible for their workers' health and safety.”

The families of five of those killed – Annette Doyle, Kenneth Murray, Thomas McAuley, Tracey McErlane and Anne Trench – expressed concern that the inquiry did not examine these wider health and safety failings. A statement said: “The time has come for the HSE to accept that soft touch regulation does not work, and that workers throughout the UK should have confidence that health and safety regulators have employers quaking in their boots.”

It was a sentiment repeated by STUC health and safety officer Ian Tasker, who has worked closely with the families. “Negligent employers who are endangering life and limb should be quaking in their boots instead of Scotland's industrial workers,” he said. Relatives’ campaign group Families against Corporate Killers (FACK) said the “toothless” watchdog’s failed strategy had been exposed and called on HSE’s top brass to take the honourable course and resign.

FACK spokesperson Hilda Palmer said: “Just as the directors of ICL Stockline are responsible for the decisions that led to the explosion, so the leaders of the HSE are responsible for the policies of backing away from enforcement promoted under the past chair, Bill Callaghan, which prevailed at the time of the explosion” (Hazards 95).  

As his term as chair came to an end in 2007, Callaghan, the architect and enforcer of HSE’s soft touch strategy, was knighted for “services to health and safety”. “He should hand back the gong and the six figure part-time salary and apologise now to Stockline victims and their families,” said Hilda Palmer.

She added HSE’s current top table wasn’t blame free. HSE continued to champion unenforceable “voluntary” director responsibility for workplace safety, so “at the very least we expect the leadership of HSE to take full responsibility and be accountable as the buck stops at the top.”

FACK founder member Dorothy Wright, whose son Mark died at work, commented: “How can we be sure we will be safe at work if our employers can and do flout the law and the health and safety police don't enforce until people are killed?”

Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy said the findings were “damning”, adding: “What is clear is that this disaster was entirely avoidable.” He said: “There's very strong criticism of the HSE, that they missed some of the tell-tale signs, the inspections they did weren't up to scratch, and they missed some signs that possibly could have meant that this disaster was avoided.” He added: “There are real concerns; there are systematic failures identified by Lord Gill. That's why we've said to the HSE they've got to account for their actions.”

According to Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the Occupational Health and Safety Research Group at Stirling University, a major shake-up is required.

The number of HSE enforcement staff needs to double and workers need to be more closely consulted about safety, he said.

Inspectors on the ground need to be backed up by effective senior management. There should be more tough enforcement, including jail terms for corporate offenders.

Professor Watterson was co-author of a September 2007 Strathclyde and Stirling University independent report into the disaster. Workers’ testimonies in the report describing choking heat and dust, pneumonia-like illness, ovens built from old bin lorries and chemicals being mixed like cocktails on workbenches.

A statement from the report authors after the publication of Lord Gill’s report noted: “The failures that still require urgent action relate to those of ICL and companies like them at board and senior level. “Changes are required in the HSE at policy level relating to failures to ensure good governance and the lack of effective top level management of the HSE.”

In his findings, Lord Gill said HSE was guilty of a “stiffly bureaucratic response” with an “apparent lack of any sense of urgency.”

Commenting on Lord Gill’s findings, Geoffrey Podger who took up his post as HSE chief executive the year after the disaster, said: “Of course, we in HSE acknowledge any past shortcoming, which are still a matter of great regret to us.” He apologised to the victims and their families for HSE’s part in the “terrible tragedy”, but then tried to claim some credit because an inspector had ordered the pipes to be replaced in 1988. While the inspector did his job, HSE’s systems failed completely.

The HSE chief executive suggested things are better today, commenting: “HSE has already done a great deal since the accident at ICL Plastics.”

In fact, frontline HSE inspector numbers, inspections, enforcement action and convictions all plummeted in the years following the disaster (Hazards 104). Lord Gill’s report rightly recommends the urgent replacement of all metal pipes carrying LPG. But the Stockline deaths also exposed a soft touch safety agency with blood on its hands. HSE requires an urgent upgrade as well.

Fatal lessons must be learned

The real lessons of the ICL Stockline disaster are about improving official safety oversight, a top academic panel has said. The team from Strathclyde and Stirling universities produced a detailed – and damning – September 2007 on health and safety practices at the factory and the enforcement void that allowed them to continue.

In a statement following publication of Lord Gill’s July 2009 public inquiry report, the academics said: “The failures that still require urgent action relate to those of ICL and companies like them at board and senior level. Changes are required in the HSE at policy level relating to failures to ensure good governance and the lack of effective top level management of the HSE. Action is also needed by government in terms of its pursuit of a soft regulation and the so called ‘better regulation’ strategy on health and safety at work. This has impacted directly and indirectly on HSE in terms of its declining prosecution, conviction and enforcement record in the 21st century and in its underfunding and understaffing.”

The statement makes a series of recommendations. It says the ICL report highlights shortcomings in employer accountability, and says courts too readily “take for granted” information provided by employers on their safety management and their financial resources. It calls for far more thorough investigations to establish the real situation. The academics also call for a Scottish Corporate Killing Act that targets individual directors and senior managers. 

HSE’s role should also be beefed-up. “The agency has lacked high level leadership, staff and resources as well as powers to do their job,” the statement says. “Inspectors in the field lack the leadership they deserve and employees lack the vital protection that they need. HSE should be funded to a level sufficient to ensure that each workplace employing 10 people or more can expect regular and effective inspections.”

The statement also calls for extended rights for trade union safety reps, including roving safety reps. Other measures advocated include the right to stop the job. Without effective enforcement, a union, roving safety rep cover or other means to deliver effective consultation “the ICL workforce were effectively cut adrift,” the statement concludes.

* See all the related documents online: www.hazards.org/icldisaster



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