Employee fall leads to severe chemical burns

A company has been fined £400,000 after an employee was seriously injured while carrying out a routine task at its chemicals site in Scotland. What were the circumstances of the event, could it have been prevented or the severity of the injury reduced?

The accident

In November 2019 a worker was attempting to clear a sump that contained a caustic solution at INEOS’s (I) site in Grangemouth, Scotland. The sump had needed emptying as its contents had reached the high-level design threshold. After laying out various hoses in preparation for emptying the sump, the worker then entered the work zone. While in the sump area, he stepped onto the corner of the grating with his right leg.

However, the grating gave way, with the worker’s right leg falling into the sump and becoming saturated with the caustic solution. He was submerged in the solution for three seconds before pulling himself out of the sump. He sustained permanent scarring to his right leg and was in pain for four weeks following the incident before returning to work.

Lack of risk assessment

The HSE investigation into this incident found I had failed to undertake a risk assessment of the work involved. There was also no safe system of work in place. The grating was not secured and there were no barriers in place to prevent a fall into the sump.

Large fine

I pleaded guilty to an offence under s.2(1) and s.33(1)(a) Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 . In March 2024 it was fined £400,000.

Following the hearing the HSE commented on the large fine, noting that the duties on employers to undertake a suitable and sufficient assessment of risks and to provide a safe system of work are absolute within health and safety legislation and well understood.

Undertaking routine maintenance

Tip. Use our Safety Briefing - Maintenance Hazards to remind staff of the hazards of undertaking maintenance works (see The next step ). It depends on how frequently tasks have to be completed as to how often you should brief staff, but once every six months is a reasonably practicable timeframe. Any less may mean infrequent maintenance works become riskier, and any more may disrupt work routines and cause resentment.

Chemical burns

The dangerous properties of caustic are widely known and this incident could have been avoided with the implementation of straightforward control measures identified through assessment.

Tip. Dealing with chemicals should be part of your first aid risk assessment. Simply having caustic solutions on site makes it a foreseeable risk that a person could sustain a serious injury. There are first aid measures available specifically for dealing with chemical burns, with application of a solution quickly neutralising both acid and alkaline substances, reducing the severity of the injury (see The next step ).

For our Safety Briefing - Maintenance Hazards and a link to chemical neutralising first aid equipment, visit , Download Zone, year 22 issue 14.

Due to lack of a risk assessment a worker fell through some unsecured grating into a caustic solution, causing severe burns to his leg. Avoid making the same mistake by properly planning for routine maintenance tasks. Have appropriate first aid measures such as neutralising rinsing solution in place to reduce the severity of an injury.

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