Safety watchdog is damned over Stockline blast

THE authority of Britain's workplace safety watchdog came under fierce scrutiny yesterday, after an inquiry ruled that "serious weaknesses" in its inspection procedures contributed to an explosion at a Glasgow factory that killed nine people.

Lord Gill's inquiry into the "avoidable" Stockline disaster found that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had failed to understand the dangers at the plant and did not carry out prompt follow-up visits.

Families of the victims called on the HSE to end "soft-touch regulation" and said the body had allowed the factory owners to "flout" safety rules.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Scotland's second most senior judge warned that, although five years had passed since the explosion, which happened after leaking liquid petroleum gas (LPG) ignited, "there is every possibility that a similar disaster could occur again".

Stressing that "there is no time to lose", Lord Gill's recommendations include the replacement of all similar metallic pipe systems with polyethylene structures at some 60,000 commercial sites across Britain.

His inquiry reprimanded the management at the ICL/Stockline plastics factory in Maryhill, who "lacked knowledge and understanding" about the underground piping.

The government has ordered the HSE to publish its response within eight weeks. Scotland Office minister Anne McKechin said she wanted Lord Gill's recommendations put in place by January "as far as possible", and warned that the HSE must not become "overly bureaucratic".

After the blast on 11 May, 2004, the four-storey Victorian factory collapsed in seconds, causing one worker to believe a plane had crashed. Five men and four women died, and a further 33 people were seriously injured.

The inquiry, set up last January at a cost of about 1 million, was told the damaged pipework that led to the disaster could have been replaced for 405.

In his findings, Lord Gill said the HSE had "failed to appreciate the significance" of buried pipework that led to the explosion, and that it was guilty of a "stiffly bureaucratic response", with an "apparent lack of any sense of urgency".

HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger said lessons had been learned and acknowledged that "any past shortcoming" were "a matter of great regret".

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He went on: "We are well on the way to introducing new industry practices, which will further lessen the risk of such an incident happening again."

Asked by The Scotsman if the inquiry had damaged the HSE's authority irreparably, he said: "We're clear that the UK has the most successful health and safety system in western Europe. A lot of the report concerns the 1980s, and the HSE has done a lot to improve since then."

Defending the HSE's "very logical response" to the tragedy, he said: "At the time, nobody was remotely sure why the accident happened. Once we sorted out the cause of the tragedy, we had to find our whether it was a more general problem."

In a statement, ICL Plastics Ltd and ICL Tech Ltd said: "The ICL companies wish to express profound sadness and apologise for their omissions and the shortcomings of those who were responsible for the health and safety of the employees."

The families of five of those killed expressed concern that the inquiry did not examine the wider health and safety failings that could have led to an unhealthy safety culture at ICL.

They 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."

Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, who met the Stockline families yesterday, described the findings as "damning" and challenged the HSE to respond appropriately.

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."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Asked if he believed the HSE had lost its authority to investigate such major incidents, he said: "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."

Ms McKechin added: "There are sometimes incidents which don't always fall within the tick-box mentality, and this was a classic case."

'Five years on you learn to live with it, but there is no closure'

THE families who lost their loved ones in the Stockline disaster spoke yesterday of the pain they have endured in the past five years and demanded sweeping changes to health and safety procedures.

Rosemary Doyle, who lost her daughter Annette, said she last spoke to her the morning she set out for work. "Five years on you just learn to live with it, but there is no closure," she said.

Ms Doyle maintained the companies behind the factory should have been the subject of a criminal prosecution.

She said: "The sad thing is, when it happens at work, it just becomes a health and safety issue. I feel they should have been taken to court like a criminal, because it was through their negligence that people died.

"If someone goes out in a car with faulty brakes and kills someone, they will be taken to court."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She added: "Directors must be held responsible – no-one has been held responsible and the buck has been passed. It's been passed down the line so many times – there has been no-one willing to stand up and say this was my responsibility."

She said the company and the Health and Safety Executive were to blame – the firm for "flouting" regulations, and the HSE for letting them do it.

Kirsteen Murray, whose brother, Kenneth, died in the tragedy, said: "We just hope that what has happened today will bring at least a tiny bit of usefulness. The report has been fantastic – we just need to hope it doesn't get buried."

A statement on behalf of five of the bereaved families – the relatives of Ms Doyle, Mr Murray, Thomas McAuley, Tracey McErlane and Anne Trench – summed up their loss.

"Grandchildren, nephews and nieces have been born, children have grown up and gone to school, and sadly other family members have passed away without knowing what caused the deaths of those dear to them."


• The inquiry found the plant's underground liquid petroleum gas (LPG) pipe was viewed as "out of sight, out of mind" by the owner.

• Management at ICL "lacked knowledge and understanding" about LPG.

• There were deficiencies in the HSE's oversight of ICL in failing to appreciate the significance of buried pipework.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

• When the yard was raised in 1973 and the floor was laid over the open pit area, safety implications were overlooked.

• Laying a chequer plate floor over the open pit area in 1982 effectively put the pipe entry to the building out of sight.

• Weaknesses in the regulatory regimes existed in the 1980s and they failed to highlight the problems

• Lord Gill says sites with underground metallic pipes between LPG tanks and appliances should have the piping replaced with polyethylene.

• An early inspection should take place of all buildings with LPG supply.