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News added on 04.07.2019

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Hazardous substances

Teenager overcome by fumes

A teenage apprentice was overcome by chemical vapours while working at an alloy wheel refurbishment company. Luckily, he made a full recovery, but what led to this potentially fatal situation?

The 16-year-old apprentice was employed by Wheelnut Ltd (W). He entered the “acid room” to retrieve alloy wheels from one of three barrels containing dichloromethane (DCM), methanol and hydrofluoric acid, chemicals used in the stripping process. He fell unconscious and was found later by a colleague slumped over a barrel.

When the HSE investigated, it found that W’s risk assessment for the wheel stripping process was not suitable or sufficient. DCM is widely used as a solvent, but it is a highly volatile substance, i.e. it readily vaporises and therefore poses an inhalation hazard. Symptoms of exposure range from fatigue and nausea to loss of consciousness and death.

Appropriate control measures should have been provided, including suitable exhaust ventilation in the “acid room” and respiratory protective equipment (RPE) for the employees. Although RPE was provided, it was not properly maintained and the HSE found that it was damaged and the air feed from the compressor was not filtered correctly.

The investigation also found that both on this occasion and previously, the apprentice had not worn RPE when he entered the room. As an apprentice, his work should have been closely supervised and any such breaches of safety procedures corrected.

The HSE found that employees were not provided with suitable and sufficient information, instruction, and training regarding the risks involved with using the chemicals, particularly DCM.

W pleaded guilty to breaching its duty to safeguard its employee at work under s.2(1) Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. It was fined £32,000 and ordered to pay full costs of over £1,700.

The failings by this firm to ensure that its employees could work around dangerous chemicals safely included an insufficient risk assessment, lacking or defective control measures and inadequate employee information and training. The apprentice, as a young and inexperienced worker, should have been closely supervised to ensure that he followed safe working practices.

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