A North East pharmaceutical company has been fined after a worker was left fighting for his life in hospital.
The employee was sprayed with seven litres of bromine at Aesica Pharmaceuticals on the Windmill Industrial Estate in Cramlington, Northumberland.
He spent 48 hours in a life-threatening condition after inhaling the corrosive substance and also suffered severe skin burns and damage to one eye.
The incident, in February last year, was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which prosecuted the company for safety failings.
Newcastle Crown Court heard how, in 2007, a bromine bulk storage tank had been taken out of service and prepared for an insurance inspection which included removing short sections of connecting pipework.
The removal left the rest of the pipework, including some valves, suspended from a set of flexible bellows.
The tank failed its insurance inspection and its planned replacement was postponed until 2012.
The pipework at one end was disconnected, but the other end was still connected up – meaning bromine leaked in over the next five years.
When the worker removed cables connected to the tank, the bellows failed, releasing the bromine over him.
Bromine is classified as potentially fatal if inhaled and can cause severe skin burns. The employee was in hospital for four weeks and continues to receive treatment for his injuries. He has not yet returned to work.
HSE found the bolts on the bellows were badly corroded increasing the likelihood that they would rupture under any stress.
It also identified that a further section of bromine pipework, which could also have become contaminated with bromine, was also inadequately supported.
Aesica Pharmaceuticals Ltd, based at Quorum Business Park, Newcastle, was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay £7,803 after pleading guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.
After the case, HSE Inspector Graham Watson, said: “This was a serious incident with potentially fatal consequences which was readily preventable.
“All employers and particularly those handling dangerous chemicals must not assume a lack of previous incidents means risks are adequately controlled. Measures must be in place to ensure, through robust audit and review that this is due to effective management and not just good fortune.
“Maintaining the mechanical integrity of process plant and pipework is essential to preventing the loss of hazardous chemicals.
“Measures must be in place through an on-going programme of maintenance and inspection to ensure the continued integrity of the plant according to risk.”
Steve Barker, Cramlington spokesperson for Aesica, said: “The Company would like to express its sincere regret for the incident which occurred on the Cramlington site in February 2012 and the resulting injury to a site employee.
“Throughout the investigation and proceedings, the company has cooperated fully with the HSE, in the interests of ensuring the safety of its employees and facilities.
“We accept the court’s ruling and have already implemented stringent measures to ensure this remains an isolated incident in what is a site with an exceptional safety record, spanning over 30 years of bromine use.
“This was an isolated incident during which only a small amount of bromine was released.
“At the time of the incident our practiced emergency procedures were implemented and the leak was immediately isolated and contained.
“The company has a stringent commitment to the highest standards of safety and robust regulatory processes.
“Our primary concern has and will always be the safety of our employees and we have reaffirmed our commitment to maintain an exceptional safety record at our facilities.
“We continue to evaluate our procedures and working practices to ensure we do everything within our power to prevent issues occurring in the future.
“The company has remained in regular contact with our colleague and his family and we are delighted to confirm that he continues to make a good recovery.”