Irvine pharmaceutical firm fined £55,000 after explosion injures two employees

The parent company of GlaxoSmithKline was this week fined £55,000 for health and safety failings following an explosion at the Irvine plant over three years ago which left two employees injured.

Smithkline Beecham Limited pleaded guilty to a charge under health and safety legislation relating to a failure to “identify suitable and sufficient control measures to reduce, as far as reasonably practical” the risks involved in a certain chemical procedure.

Catriona Dow, prosecuting, said that the incident in July 2013, involved the use of potassium clavulanate – “a constituent part of drugs, particularly antibiotics”.

It was, she said “a potentially dangerous substance which requires very careful handling”.

The process being undertaken on the day of the explosion was mixing the potassium clavulanate with avicel, “an inert blocking agent which is fairly easy to handle”.

The most common process involved diluting the potassium substance with avicel.

On this occasion, however, workers at the Shewalton Road factory were adding the more dangerous chemical to an understrength solution.

The two employees concerned used blending equipment. The potassium clavulanate should, however, have been added manually.

Ms Dow said that one of the employees described hearing “a pop and sizzle”.

He was then thrown against a wall and “experienced intense heat”. There was an “intense flash fire”.

He and his colleague managed to escape “with some difficulty” and with their overalls on fire. The two men were taken to Crosshouse Hospital where they were treated for minor burns and discharged after four hours.

Ms Dow said that there had been a detailed investigation by the Health and Safety Executive which found that “the process had not been adequately risk-assessed and, where risks had been identified, the control measures were not made sufficiently clear”.

Peter Gray, defending, made a lengthy submission highlighting the company’s good health and safety record, which included receiving the British Safety Council’s highest award just last year.

Smithkline Beecham had co-operated fully with the Health and Safety Executive and with the Crown Office.

It had taken immediate steps to ensure that such an accident did not happen again. The process involved was, in fact, no longer carried out at the Irvine plant.

Sheriff Elizabeth McFarlane said that given the guidelines for penalties in such cases and the company’s annual turnover of £391 million, she took a fine of £100,000 as her starting point.

This was reduced to £80,000 given “a number of mitigating factors”.

The only aggravating factor which had been identified, she said, was the risk of serious injury.

“That was certainly a significant risk,” she said.

The fine was further reduced because of the timing of the guilty plea.


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