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Dangerous substances and explosive atmospheres – what to know, what to do

Updated: Feb 16

Flammable substances present a fire hazard and many people treat them with the respect they deserve. However, they also have other dangers, not the least of which is that of fume build-up, particularly in confined spaces where the fumes do not have the chance to disperse naturally. What can happen in such situations and what can be done to maximise the safety of working conditions?

Case Study

A Norfolk Broads-based boat building company has been fined after a worker suffered serious burns. The electrician was working in the hull of the boat whilst operating a battery-powered drill. The drill ignited fumes from ‘Propeel’, a highly flammable substance, which had been applied to the boat shortly before the incident. The injured worker suffered serious burns to his face, arms and legs.

An HSE investigation discovered that the substance had been applied to the boat with no safe system of work in place for its use. Outdated company risk assessments were being used and a less harmful substitute for the product had not been considered. Since the incident occurred, the company has sourced and is successfully using a much safer, water-based alternative product.

Broom Boats Ltd. pleaded guilty to breaching Regulations 5, 6 and 9 (1) of the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR). A fine of £12,000 was imposed and the company was ordered to pay costs of over £7,000.

rradar recommends:

What could have been done to avoid this accident?  Let us look at each individual breach:

Regulation 5. Risk assessment

This is the starting point for any task in the workplace. In this case, the risk assessment should identify the hazards of the chemical or product being used. This could be from the manufacturer’s instructions, safety data sheets (SDS) and trade publications.

Regulation 6. Elimination or reduction of risks from dangerous substances.

One of the hazards identified in this product would be the explosive risk from the vapours. On identifying and assessing this, the first control measure would be “can we eliminate this process/product? If not, can we substitute for a safer product?”

If there are no safer substitutes, careful consideration must be given to all the control measures that would be required to safely use such a dangerous substance.

Some of the measures required may be:

  • the use of only air-operated equipment;

  • any electrical equipment must be suitable and rated for the environment in which it will operate;

  • all metal work to be earth bonded;

  • detailed consideration of suitable ventilation equipment, to minimise the build-up of flammable/explosive atmosphere;

  • employees not to be allowed near the area with any means of creating a source of ignition (overalls should be carefully chosen to avoid static discharge).

Regulation 9. Information, instruction and training.

Whatever task is being undertaken, all employees should receive suitable information and instruction. This can be in the form of face-to-face meetings, toolbox talks or the company’s own method for distributing the information. All staff should be suitably trained for the work they carry out. This may be an accredited qualification or short, computer-based training sessions depending on the required task.

Separate from the breaches, whatever work is being undertaken, plans should be made for emergencies. It is too late when an emergency happens to start to plan what to do. Businesses should record everything and never try to carry on if it is beyond their competency. Assistance should be sought from qualified professionals.

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