U.K. barge operator fined for releasing dangerous gas

SEPTEMBER 25, 2014 — The U.K. Marine and Coastguard Agency reports that the operator of a Portsmouth-based barge has been made to pay almost £111,000 (about $182 million) in fines and costs.

Serco Ltd admitted an offense at Portsmouth Crown Court in relation to the health and safety of workers aboard a barge whose primary function was to collect waste products from naval vessels moored in Portsmouth.

On July 6, 2011, the barge was secured alongside a warship at Portsmouth Naval Base and was taking waste water from the vessel. A short while later, the crew started to smell the distinctive "rotten eggs" odor of hydrogen sulfide (H2S).

A crewman collected the only personal gas detector on board and, as soon as he went on deck, the monitor alarmed at 57 parts per million (ppm) – well above the prescribed danger limits of 5ppm (8 hour time-weighted average (TWA)) and 10ppm (15 minute TWA).

The crew contacted the Operations Manager but the process was not stopped as it was decided that the monitor was malfunctioning. A safety boat was sent to the barge to standby as a precaution. A short while later, the gas monitor's alarm was set off once again, this time registering at 87 ppm. At this stage the crew started to feel unwell and the decision was then made to stop the operation and evacuate the barge. The two crew were taken to hospital for treatment.

An investigation by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) showed a number of health and safety failings by the operator. These included unsafe practice by leaving the tank lids open; safety equipment, such as the gas monitor, not being properly maintained or calibrated, and the crew not properly trained in how to use the safety equipment.

On September 23, 2014, Serco Ltd was fined £50,000, with £60,716 in costs and a £120 victim surcharge.

The court took into account an early guilty plea and, in passing, sentence the judge said:

There was a failure of local managment to ensure that the written instructions were complied with. This failure is made all the worse because the point had been identified that on more than one occasion audits had been carried out and it was noted that tank content gauges were not active and the raising of tank lids was used instead.

It is of course significant that, despite the serious risk, it was fortunate that there were no deaths or serious injuries.

Julie Carlton, Seafarer Safety and Health Manager at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said:

This was a very serious yet avoidable incident. A properly functioning safety management system would have identified the need to maintain and calibrate the gas monitor correctly, ensuring it was in good working order. Then perhaps the crew and their supervisor would have trusted its reading, and recognised the need to stop the operation as soon as the hazard was identified.

Companies must constantly be alert to risks and hazards involved in their operations and review and update their safety management systems at regular intervals accordingly. Front line staff are an excellent source of identifying risks and hazards and should be encouraged to speak up when they identify any. Their active input is key to the development of an effective safety management system. All need to be fully aware of safety procedures and understand the dangers of not following them.

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