Wigan scrap firm fined over workshop blaze

A WIGAN company has been fined £40,000 and ordered to pay costs of a further £25,000 after a car mechanic suffered severe burns when the inspection pit he was standing in burst into flames.

A court was shown CCTV footage on Thursday of the incident in 2010 when Lee Roberts, 33 from Wigan, was working underneath a van at Douglas Valley Breakers Ltd’s workshop on Blainscough Lane in Coppull when fire suddenly erupts.

The company was prosecuted after a joint investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service discovered multiple health and safety failings.

Leyland Magistrates’ Court was told the company regularly removes engine and gearbox oil, coolant, air conditioning liquid and fuel from old vehicles so they can be used for scrap.

It was common practice for employees to puncture the fuel tank on vehicles to allow fuel to drain into an open container on the floor of an inspection pit. An electric drill was also sometimes used to make a hole in the tank.

 The investigation concluded that the most likely cause of the fire was that the drained fuel was set alight by a spark from the electric drill or an extension lead in the pit.

The fire which injured Lee Roberts grew rapidly due to the presence of petrol and was further fuelled by plastic car body parts and items of vehicle upholstery, spreading to involve the whole of the workshop.

A major response was required from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service to bring the fire under control and, with the assistance of Lancashire Police, to ensure the safety of people nearby.

Mr Roberts sustained severe burns to his hands, legs and nose in the fire, and he has not been able to return to work since the incident.

He said: “I still remember the noise of the petrol fumes igniting and a wave of blue flames engulfing the pit. The pain was instant and intense.

“They put me into an induced coma to stop the pain, and it was at least a couple of days later when I came around. When I woke up, I could feel the pain immediately.

“Even now, more than three years later, I still suffer flashbacks that cause me to wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. I haven’t been able to work since the accident and feel that I no longer want to be a car dismantler – the only trade I have ever known.”

The court was told Douglas Valley Breakers should never have allowed fuel to be drained into inspection pits, where vapours could accumulate, and it should have made sure there were no ignition sources nearby, such as electrical equipment.

The company also failed to ensure fuel was safely removed from the vehicle, despite having a piece of equipment that could be used to drain it into a sealed container.

While inspecting CCTV from the site, HSE inspectors identified several other incidents of unsafe behaviour. These included workers climbing up the outside of storage racks, and riding on the forks of a telehandler to reach items high up on the racks.

Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service also found the company did not have suitable fire detectors and alarms, failed to provide adequate fire safety training to staff, and failed to have appropriate procedures in place for dealing with fires.

Douglas Valley Breakers, of Bradley Lane in Standish near Wigan, pleaded guilty to two breaches of the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002, one breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and two breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE Inspector David Myrtle said: “Lee suffered severe burns as a result of this incident but he was very lucky not to have been killed.

“Douglas Valley Breakers was guilty of several serious safety breaches. It failed to properly consider the risks its employees faced while removing fuel from vehicles, or to do anything about them. It was therefore almost inevitable that a worker would be badly burned in a fire.

“The company had the right equipment to do the job properly but instead it allowed workers to stand in a pit surrounded by fuel vapours where just one spark from electric equipment could start a fire.

 “If the fuel had been removed in a well-ventilated area, or even outside, without any ignition sources nearby then the severe burns Lee suffered could have been avoided. Sadly, our investigation found the company’s overall attitude to health and safety was poor to say the least.”