A company which operates a mine under the North Sea has been fined £3.6m following two separate underground electrical explosions which left workers with serious burns.

Cleveland Potash Limited (CLP) pleaded guilty to a number of breaches of health and safety regulations following the incidents, which happened in 2016 and 2019.

The fertiliser company, which operates Boulby mine, near Loftus, in east Cleveland, and is one of the world’s only producers of polyhalite, was fined £3.6m at a hearing at Teesside Crown Court today (Wednesday).

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The first explosion, known as an arc flash incident, which happened on August 3, 2016,  left contracted electrician Tom Lawton with serious burns to 20 per cent of his body, including to his face, arms and hands.

He spent two weeks in intensive care, suffered night terrors for six weeks and has been left with life-changing injuries, including disfigurement and reduced dexterity, which means his job is now office-based because he cannot carry out his previous work.

The second incident, on February 12, 2019, left another contracted electrician Thomas Dixon with burns to 80 per cent of his body, particularly to his face and neck. He has made a full recovery, the court heard.

Judge Jonathan Carroll said both incidents could have resulted in the deaths of the workers involved.

An ‘arc flash’ occurs when a powerful electrical current leaps across a space,  generating extreme temperatures, hot gases, molten metals and associated debris.

During the first incident, the court heard there had been failings to ensure the safety of workers during a planned exercise to replace circuit breakers ahead of the move to polyhalite production . As a result, the worker was at risk of touching an a live cable which carried an 11,000 volt charge. Judge Carroll said: “His hand was within inches of three live 11,000 volt feeds. The risk of death by electrocution are obvious.”

Instead, an arc flash was triggered, which resulted in him suffering burns and being blown to the ground.

Cleveland Potash had criticised sub-contractor Schneider's project management. However, Judge Carroll dismissed the argument and said there had been “central failings”.

They included the fact there was no individual in the role of system controller with overall responsibility for the programme of works until 2017, communications were via email rather than face to face, and that crucial information about the live feeds had not been passed on to the contractors.

A written document about the plans was found to have not been adapted or amended when changes were made, errors were not corrected and it was 'misleading'.

In addition, Cleveland Potash had not carried out its own risk assessments and permission to work documents were 'inadequate'.

During the second incident, the worker was again carrying out electrical work and his hand was within 20mm of a live cable. “Had he touched it, the risk of death was very real,” Judge Carroll said. “He suffered severe burns to his hand and face as a result of the flash.”

He found found there was no method statement or risk assessment, no supervision or safe system of work and PPE was inadequate.

He noted the company had no previously convictions for breaches of health and safety laws and has a “positive relationship” with staff, as well as contributing to the community.

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The company has however been subject to warning notices following other incidents, including another arc flash in 2015 and an underground shunt in the same year..

A spokesperson for CPL said the company deeply regretted the circumstances and injuries suffered by the contractors.

They said: “We have learned important lessons from these incidents, both from our own investigations and the findings of the Health and Safety Executive and have undertaken a number of significant actions aimed at further strengthening our procedures, creating a robust and safe working environment and avoiding any repeat of such incidents.

“This has included a full review of our maintenance strategy, involving the development of a major hazard inventory and risk assessment process. This has resulted in an extensive revision of maintenance schemes, including enhanced periodic testing and inspection regimes.

“In addition, we continue to invest in new improved equipment to protect against the potential hazard posed by releases of arc flash energy, as well as improved Personal Protective Equipment to provide greater levels of personal protection.

“The changes and improvements we have made are designed to ensure that safety is central to the culture of the company at every level. We take our responsibilities seriously and with our employees, their representatives, contractors, technical experts, the Health and Safety Executive and the industry as a whole, we are working to build a safe, certain and sustainable future for the Boulby operation.”

HSE specialist regulatory principal inspector Paul Bradley said: “These serious electrical incidents were easily preventable. CPL should have had a heightened awareness of electrical risks following the first incident in 2016, however failures to apply learnings and to adequately control risks resulted in the 2019 incident”.

“Employers should make sure they properly assess and apply effective control measures to minimise risks when working on electrical systems. Both these incidents were preventable if long established electrical safety practices been applied.”

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