Defence Firm Fined Over Fatal Explosion

A defence company has been ordered to pay fines and costs totalling £376,000 after its slack health and safety regime led to the death of a worker who was blown up by a build-up of nitroglycerin.

Wallop Defence Systems Ltd (WDS) exposed technician Anthony Sheridan to the highly explosive substance as he emptied an industrial oven containing flare pellets at the firm's factory near Stockbridge, Hampshire.

The 37-year-old was blown 29 metres from the huge explosion that sprinkled debris more than 300 metres. Several other workers were injured in the incident in June 2006.

The company was making decoy flares for the Ministry of Defence and they were used to protect aircraft, but it had been known since 2004 that the pellet curing process inside low temperature ovens made nitroglycerin as a by-product.

Measures were taken to try to deal with the potential hazard that the company recognised in a report in 2004 as a ''serious explosive risk''.

WDS set up a cleaning process to help with the problem but failed to carry out a series of risk assessments to highlight any danger.

Bins to hold the nitroglycerin were not emptied for a year and left outside in cold weather, which could have triggered an explosion as the substance crystallised.

A Health and Safety Executive inquiry later found that none of the firm's senior management team or technical advisers were competent to deal with the nitroglycerin issue but they did not seek external professional help.

Last month Winchester Crown Court heard the company had made misjudgements rather than ''intentional acts''.

Prosecutor Mark Harris said there was no conscious decision to ''take a shortcut for commercial gain'' but the pressure to increase production caused management to be ''highly negligent'' in addressing the risks at the time.

The HSE were not asked for their advice and when the company went to dismantle an oven and drilled a rivet out it led to a fire and a second explosion in December 2008. No-one was hurt because the site had been evacuated in time.

WDS pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2 and Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act from 2004 to 2006 in connection to the death, and to a further Section 2 breach for the second explosion.

Sentencing today, WDS was fined a total of £266,000 and ordered to pay £110,000 in costs for the breaches, the HSE said in a statement.

In a victim impact statement, Mr Sheridan's sister, Tracy Sheridan, said:

''The loss of Anthony has been massively devastating on the whole family and particularly on me. We were very close.

''Anthony was involved with the whole family and particularly my children.

''He played a big role in my children's lives and they still talk about him.

''He was a friendly person and liked by all, including all of his work-mates at Wallop.

''The family have gradually come to terms with Anthony's loss, although this was made even more difficult with the devastating injuries he suffered.

''The family wasn't able to lay an open coffin, an Irish tradition, and say goodbye in a traditional way.''

Following the sentencing, Qamar Khan, principal inspector for the HSE's explosives team, said:

''Anthony Sheridan suffered horrifying injuries in the explosion that caused his death.

''Both this explosion and the subsequent blast in December 2008 were foreseeable and preventable had the company sought and taken appropriate advice and implemented the correct measures.

''If these steps had been taken Anthony Sheridan would still be alive.

''It is especially concerning that despite issues with the factory being reported to senior WDS management, nothing materially changed to safeguard employees and the public. The company deluded itself that everything was OK and in hand.

''Companies working with dangerous substances must take extreme care at all times and in all aspects of their operations. That clearly didn't happen here, and the consequences were tragic.''