Chemical firm fined £3 million for toxic cloud release

A chemical company has been fined £3 million and ordered to pay £37,868 in costs following a toxic cloud release that killed one employee and seriously injured another.

The company was sentenced at Hull Crown Court for two separate incidents that occurred just 16 months apart at its titanium dioxide plant in Lincolnshire.

An employee of the global chemical company was killed and another sustained irreversible lung damage when they were overcome by a dense cloud of toxic vapour following leaks in a titanium tetrachloride vessel. The incident occurred in March 2010 when the two men were working at the company's site in Grimsby.

The following year, there was a second incident involving the uncontrolled release of  toxic vapour from the same chemical.

Employee showered with corrosive liquid

The court heard that the company had allowed abnormal amounts of titanium tetrachloride to build up within a vessel. The chemical reacted extremely vigorously when it came into contact with water, rupturing the vessel and showering one worker with corrosive liquid. The man received treatment for chemical burns but later died from his injuries.

A second worker survived his injuries, but suffered irreparable respiratory tract damage after inhaling an acid mist of titanium oxychloride. The man's injuries were later described as "life changing."

Once released into the atmosphere, the corrosive liquid formed a toxic vapour cloud that rose several metres in the air and was taken by the wind across the Humber river. Shipping lanes were closed for several hours as Humberside Fire and Rescue Service used blankets of foam to stem the spillage.

Had the wind been blowing in the opposite direction, the toxic cloud would have engulfed residential areas, with potentially catastrophic consequences for human health.

Second uncontrolled release

Just 16 months after the first incident, the company suffered a second major toxic release, this time from a redundant vessel.  

The container had been in storage for around three years when the company made the decision to clean it. Several tonnes of residual titanium tetrachloride came into contact with water during the cleaning process, throwing a second thick cloud of poisonous gas into the air.

Health and Safety Executive prosecution

The Health and Safety Executive, the national regulator for work-related health and safety issues, prosecuted the chemical company. Evidence presented to Hull Crown Court suggested that:

  • The company failed to follow standard operating procedure, a deviation which, during the first incident, allowed titanium tetrachloride to accumulate at dangerous levels and over-pressurise the vessel.
  • Prior to the second incident, the company had attempted to seal the redundant vessel with fabricated plates before cleaning. However, the plates and sealant were so badly designed and incompatible that they were unable to contain the toxic gases created during the cleaning process.
  • The company did not learn lessons from the first incident nor establish the robust operational procedures necessary to control risk and safeguard health.

The company pleaded guilty to breaching Sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and admitted failing to take all steps to prevent to a major accident in accordance with Regulation 4 of the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999.

They were ordered to pay fines of £2.4 million for the first incident and £600,000 for the second incident, with costs of £37,868.

Making a workplace injury claim

Companies that store, handle and use dangerous chemicals have a special duty to do so correctly, in accordance with robust safety management procedures. Where a company has been found liable for a significant breach of those procedures, as in this case, it is likely that an injured worker would succeed in their personal injury compensation claim.