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University fined after worker sustained serious injury from bomblet explosion

Cranfield University has received a fine of £80,000 after one of its workers were seriously injured when the bomblet he was attempting to deactivate…

Cranfield University has received a fine of £80,000 and has been ordered to pay costs of £75,000 after one of its workers were seriously injured when the bomblet he was attempting to deactivate exploded.

Summary

On 4 February 2011 a team of three employees from the Explosives Research Centre at the Defence Academy of Cranfield University in Bedfordshire were carrying out deactivation of former military cluster bomblets for the purpose of using them in demonstrations. During this task, one of the bomblets exploded, causing one of the employees to sustain severe chest and abdominal injuries, cuts to his face and shoulder and nerve damage to his right hand. Surgery was required to remove a shard of metal from his colon.

Duties imposed on those who manufacture or store explosives

Due to the higher risks involved in the nature of this work, the HSE require that those who manufacture or store explosives, which includes the disassembly of explosive articles or substances, must hold a licence.

In the majority of cases, stores holding less than two tonnes of explosives are also either licensed by or registered by the local authority or the police. The licensing authority may refuse a licence if it deems:

  1. A site to be unsuitable for storage of explosives; or
  2. That the applicant is not a fit person to hold explosives.

In order for employers to effectively manage health and safety and to control risk in the workplace, it is mandatory under Regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 for risk assessments to be carried out which identify hazards, who might be harmed, evaluate the risks and to record significant findings. It is also necessary for employers to regularly review their risk assessments to account for any change to the risk arising from the relevant activity.

For those who manufacture and store explosives, it is also necessary that risk assessments produced comply with specific requirements detailed in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 and fire safety legislation.

Collectively, the legislation requires:

  1. A risk assessment to be carried out to identify whether dangerous substances are present at the site and the risks they present, applying to all hazards arising from both the manufacture and storage of explosives;
  2. That a safety management system be put in place that will identify and evaluate major hazards; and
  3. That procedures are adopted and implemented for systematically identifying major hazards arising from normal and abnormal operation, and that those hazards are risk assessed accordingly in view of their likelihood and severity.

HSE investigation

An investigation conducted by the HSE found that no suitable risk assessment for this type of activity had been carried out. Further, it revealed that the university’s management team did not know that its workers had been carrying out work deactivating explosive ammunition of this nature.  Whilst it conceded that Cranfield University is “properly recognised internationally for its explosives research and teaching” it found in this case that “the standards for managing safety fell far short of what should have been in place.”

Prosecution

Cranfield University were subsequently charged with breaching: Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, in its failure to ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all its employees; and Section 4(1) of the Manufacture and Storage of Explosives Regulations 2005 (which has now been replaced by The Explosives Regulations 2014), which places anyone who manufactures or stores explosives under a duty to take appropriate steps to prevent a fire or explosion, and to protect persons from the effects of a fire or explosion.

The university pleaded guilty to both counts at Swindon Crown Court on 23 December 2015 and were sentenced and fined accordingly. HSE inspector Evan Bale commented:

“The worker’s injuries were life threatening and could have been avoided had a thorough assessment of the risks been carried out. As the university admitted, the task should not have been carried out in this manner.”

Commentary

It is vital for employers to ensure that there are suitable and sufficient risk assessments in place to effectively manage the risks arising from such a hazardous task, as required by the specific statutes identified above. One would have thought that this would have been abundantly clear to a specialist organisation which is experienced in dealing with the analysis of explosives as an integral part of its teaching.

Clearly, however in this case, the opportunity for Cranfield University to ensure that proper risk assessments were undertaken in relation to activities of this nature may have been missed from the outset given that the university management team was unaware that its employees were undertaking this type of work. The outcome of this case clearly demonstrates the importance of effective communication at all levels, which should have been assessed and analysed at regular health and safety meetings, which are clearly a reasonable practice measure in response to the risks arising given the activities of the University.