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Stockline enquiry to probe
Why did they die?
It was not just the ICL/Stockline factory that was ‘a ticking timebomb.’
A major inquiry into the blast that destroyed the Glasgow factory, killed
nine and maimed dozens of others will hear evidence the system regulating
workplace safety in the UK is in a serious state of disrepair.
A major public inquiry into the ICL/Stockline factory blast in Glasgow will be run jointly by the Scottish and UK governments, Scotland's Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini announced on 1 October 2007. The decision came after the factory owners were fined for safety offences and on the heels of a devastating Stirling and Strathclyde universities report on the explosion that was severely critical of the company and ‘dangerously dysfunctional’ regulatory agencies.
On 28 August 2007, the factory’s owners and operators, ICL Plastics and ICL Tech, were fined £400,000 for health and safety breaches related to the 11 May 2004 blast that killed nine workers and injured 40. ICL Plastics and ICL Tech had pleaded guilty to breaching health and safety legislation, admitting four offences that led to the explosion. The high court in Glasgow heard that the blast at the ICL/Stockline plant was caused by a build-up of liquefied petroleum gas that had leaked from corroded pipes. The judge, Lord Brodie, described the situation as a “ticking time bomb”.
Grahame Smith, general secretary of the Scottish TUC (STUC), said the case showed sanctions for safety offences were inadequate. “If you are a doctor and you are negligent, you are struck off; if you are a lawyer and you are negligent, you are struck off. If you are a company director and you are negligent in relation to health and safety, you can continue being a company director, and that is not acceptable.”
Hilda Palmer, spokesperson for the campaign group Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK), said: “As a penalty this fine just does not cut it for justice or for deterrence - it’s a ‘business as usual’ slap in the face to the Stockline families and to all workers.”
There is evidence the safety crimes committed at ICL/Stockline were so serious far more punitive penalties were warranted and should have targeted individual directors. Laurence Connolly (pictured) worked 15 years for ICL/Stockline, leaving the firm just three weeks before the fatal blast. He says his exit followed victimisation by the firm when it was discovered he had been a safety whistleblower and had contacted HSE.
He first became concerned because his son, also Laurence, “had constant ill-health… for me, there seemed to be a link. Every time he came back from work he took not well again. I couldn’t find out anything in the work so I started looking on the internet and I started finding out some bits and pieces myself. And then when I started reading it, it became very frightening because a lot of the problems that Laurence has had and is still having, you could actually read through these data sheets on all these chemicals and it’s telling you some of the effects that they can have on you.
“At the same time, they are telling you that you should be wearing certain types of masks, certain types of gloves, impervious overalls, all these sort of things. We never got anything like that… Then gloves appeared, sort of latex gloves, but when you went near any of the chemicals the fingers used to fall off. They used to actually dissolve so they were actually more a hindrance than anything else. They were more problems than not having them.”
Other workers interviewed for the Stirling/Strathclyde report raised similar concerns. One said managing director Stewart McColl, who was to die the blast, “was trying to implement some things, but it was just cosmetic… He would put up signs saying ‘You must wear goggles’, ‘You must wear ear protection’, ‘You must wear gloves’, ‘You must wear visors’. But if you’ve not got them how can you wear them? If you walked in the place and you would see all this stuff – it was cosmetic.”
Another said: “You had dust and fumes from all the ovens – you had the wee sort of – this is going to sound silly – you know the clean room? [laughs] The Wendy House. It was one of the most disgusting places in there, it was so filthy, but they called it the clean room. This is what they called it didn’t they? It was the clean room. Nobody ever used it, it was full of junk. Paper and dust and all that.”
And a third worker told the researchers: “Right next to my office there was a blaster for any parts that came in, they would get blasted off before they got dip-coated and when the blaster door was open the dust just went everywhere. There was no extraction for it. The only extraction was the main entrance where the goods would come in. There wasn’t any fan or anything like that to extract the dust. Me, personally, I felt as if it affected my respiratory system. And there were other chemicals, I mean, when you went into fabrication you could taste it as soon as you walked in, you know, all this stuff was airborne.”
Announcing the public inquiry, Elish Angiolini, Scotland’s senior law officer, said: “As health and safety legislation is reserved to the United Kingdom parliament, and the investigation of deaths in Scotland fall solely under my jurisdiction as the lord advocate, only a joint inquiry could truly address all of the issues which arise as a result of this case.”
Secretary of state for work and pensions Peter Hain said: “The findings of the inquiry are likely to have significance across the United Kingdom. It is vital for ministers to work together to establish a full inquiry into the events leading to the explosion and the lessons which we can learn for the future.” He added that the ICL/Stockline families group had “made it clear to me that they want to see the role that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) played in regulating these premises prior to the incident is fully investigated. I fully support them on this point. No issue relevant to the circumstances should be out of bounds.”
Mr Hain concluded: “It is essential that the inquiry is thorough, transparent and exhaustive but not protracted. The families have suffered already and we do not want them to have to wait unduly for answers.”
A statement from HSE said: “This incident was thoroughly investigated jointly by HSE and Strathclyde Police, reporting to the Procurator Fiscal. This investigation led to the prosecution of two companies. HSE will co-operate fully with the Inquiry, which will provide an opportunity to present the facts arising out of the investigation and the lessons to be learnt.”
Although HSE’s took no public position of the type of inquiry, Hazards has discovered a senior HSE official in Scotland privately lobbied the Lord Advocate for a Fatal Accident Inquiry, a form of investigation that would have concentrated solely on the details of the explosion but would not have probed other factors like potential culpability on the part of HSE, which has seen the number and scope of workplace inspections decline dramatically.
The independent Stirling and Strathclyde universities report into the tragedy, published on 2 September 2007, concluded it was caused by years of neglect by both the company that ran it and by the government safety watchdog meant to regulate it.
Conditions in the factory were poor, safety rules were broken and corners were cut to save money said the report, based on research and mapping exercises with former factory employees. Little action was taken to address safety problems. Ill-health, including cases of polymer fume fever – flu-type symptoms called by inhaling certain plastic fumes – was commonplace.
The report authors concluding it was “a sick firm” where workers were “actively discouraged” from raising safety concerns.
Like Laurence Connolly, other workers highlighted problems with heavy-handed management, with the firm’s opposition to unionisation made clear. One commented: “The MD at the time, Frank Stott, said more or less that if it ever happened whoever was responsible would not be there for long. Something along those lines.” He said the MD at the time of the blast, Stewart McColl, took a similar approach. “Anti-union. Stewart McColl was anti-everything. It was him. He was the most important thing to him. He was everybody. He was the lawyer, jury and judge. He was the lot. He told you what he done. He made the verdict.”
Report co-author Professor Andy Watterson from Stirling University said a low fine, a disregard of safety by the firm and poor official oversight “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 added: “The surprise is not that tragedy struck at ICL, but that it didn't happen sooner. Neither HSE nor the firm took the action necessary to remedy problems over 20 years that had a clear potential for catastrophic failure.”
The multiple deaths and injuries were not the result of an “accident”, but the inevitable outcome of a “dangerously dysfunctional” health and safety culture “blighted by faint-hearted regulators”, he said. The report called for more resources for and commitment to official safety inspection and enforcement.
Unions, safety campaigners and families affected by the explosion had all pressed for a full inquiry. They said alternative forms of investigation would not have examined the role of management at the company or regulatory agencies.
Mike Macdonald, negotiations officer with HSE inspectors’ union Prospect, said the public inquiry should focus on the key issues affecting the performance of the HSE in Scotland and across Great Britain, to identify the changes needed to ensure the best health and safety protection for workers. He said the inquiry should target shortcomings in HSE and not individual HSE inspectors. “In particular the debate over Stockline should not scapegoat individuals constrained by public policy but should concentrate on improving the effectiveness of the HSE,” he said. “The government needs to accept responsibility for placing a greater focus on funding than effectiveness - the victims of Stockline deserve nothing less.”
HSE has been forced to cut back on staff numbers and training, close offices and prioritise inspections on a limited number of target areas; slips and trips, workplace transport, falls from height and musculoskeletal disorders. Since 2003, HSE inspectors have been under instructions to look solely at these issues during inspections. Unless “matters of evident concern” are raised they cannot use their experience and discretion to look into other matters such as fire and explosion risks, structural safety and dangerous machinery. Funding cuts have meant the watchdog has haemorrhaged staff in recent years, and more cutbacks are to follow.
Neil Hope-Collins, Prospect HSE branch chair, said: “Our members are committed to serving the public of Scotland and trying to prevent workplace injury and ill-health but are just too stretched to do all the work they feel is necessary. We need to let skilled professional inspectors use their judgment to tackle all serious risks and turn poor workplaces into decent ones.”
The authors of the independent Stirling and Strathclyde universities report said the inquiry should investigate the role of HSE, including the impact of “better regulation” approaches they say have led to the number and quality of workplace inspections being reduced. They added the probe should also examine the role of the local and planning authorities, consultants and the emergency services. Other issues that should be probed include the protection of safety whistleblowers and appropriately punitive penalties for serious safety breaches.
The report also called for new rights for safety reps, including the introduction of roving safety reps and the right for all safety reps to issue legally binding Provisional Improvement Notices – a measure that could ensure imminent dangers were addressed promptly between visits from official HSE inspectors.
FACK spokesperson Hilda Palmer said the tragedy demonstrated why new workplace safety rights were required. “We demand protection for whistleblowers, and more powers for workers and trade union safety reps including roving reps to represent workers before they are injured, made ill or killed,” she said, adding the inquiry should consider “why the company was allowed to go on behaving badly.”
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