An independent report into the ICL Glasgow plastics factory fire disaster in which nine workers died in May 2004 has exposed a health and safety culture which is ‘dangerously dysfunctional’ and ‘blighted by fainthearted regulators’.
The report concludes that regulators fail, because they are rarely seen and are increasingly reluctant to take the necessary enforcement action.
Equally important is the reluctance, if not refusal, to take heed of and act upon warnings provided by workers who are those most directly affected and exposed to hazards.
The research behind the report was conducted by a multi-disciplinary team including workplace health, risk, employment rights and relations, corporate crime, architecture and accounting from the universities of Strathclyde and Stirling.
They found that health and safety standards at the ICL factory in Maryhill, Glasgow were seriously deficient and that workers were ‘actively discouraged’ from raising safety concerns.
The total fine to the two companies of £400,000 could be set in the context of a fine imposed on a UK company earlier in August, say the authors.
British Airways was fined £121.5 million by the Office of Fair Trading after admitting that individuals had colluded with Virgin Atlantic and other airlines to set fuel surcharges on cargo and passenger flights.
Report co-author Professor Andy Watterson of Stirling University said: ‘Everything from the company’s health and safety culture, to oversight by the Health and Safety Executive and other regulatory agencies to the penalties laid down this week by the courts, point to a system that gives a nod and a wink to the most negligent employers that they can risk lives with virtual impunity.
‘The surprise is not that tragedy struck at ICL, but that it didn’t happen sooner.
‘Neither HSE nor the firm took the action necessary to remedy problems over 20 years that had a clear potential for catastrophic failure.
‘This was a sick firm – workers regularly developed “polymer fume fever” and former workers report a series of accidents, some requiring hospitalisation.’
Co-author Professor Phil Taylor from Strathclyde University said: ‘From workers’ testimonies it is clear that working conditions in the plant were primitive as management was driven by cost-minimisation and cut corners.
‘There appears to have been an absence of consultation – on either a formal or informal basis – with the workforce which was a reflection of the wider industrial relations culture and practices, which rested upon top-down unilateral management decision-making.
‘Workers complained of heavy-handedness, arbitrariness and favouritism over questions of pay determination.
‘Reports suggest that management had long been motivated by a hostility to trade unionism and a reluctance to respond to employees’ concerns or to listen to their voices.’
The report calls for a full public enquiry.
It also calls for rights for worker representatives, stricter penalties on company directors – including jail terms and seizure of assets – a stronger enforcement presence and action from HSE.
Workers’ testimony within the report highlight the poor Health and Safety practices in the factory.
One worker was concerned about the health of his son who also worked in the factory.
He said: ‘I couldn’t find out anything in the work so I started looking on the Internet and I started finding out some bits and pieces myself.
‘And then when I started reading it, it became very frightening because a lot of the problems that Laurence has had and still having, you could actually read through these data sheets on all these chemicals and it’s telling you some of the effects that they can have on you.
‘At the same time, they are telling you that you should be wearing certain types of masks, certain types of gloves, impervious overalls, all these sort of things.
‘We never got anything like that. . . . Then gloves appeared, sort of latex gloves, but when you went near any of the chemicals the fingers used to fall off.
‘They used to actually dissolve so they were actually more a hindrance than anything else. They were more problems than not having them.’
Other worker testimony included the following: ‘You had dust and fumes from all the ovens – you had the wee sort of – this is going to sound silly – you know the clean room? (laughs) The Wendy House.
‘It was one of the most disgusting places in there, it was so filthy, but they called it the clean room.
‘This is what they called it didn’t they? It was the clean room. Nobody ever used it, it was full of junk. Paper and dust and all that.’ (Worker 3).
‘Right next to my office there was a blaster for any parts that came in, they would get blasted off before they got dip-coated and when the blaster door was open the dust just went everywhere.
‘There was no extraction for it. The only extraction was the main entrance where the goods would come in.
‘There wasn’t any fan or anything like that to extract the dust. Me, personally, I felt as if it affected my respiratory system.
‘And there were other chemicals, I mean, when you went into fabrication you could taste it as soon as you walked in, you know, all this stuff was airborne.’ (Worker 4)
‘My concern was that the chemicals were openly used. Some people would be using different chemicals at more or less every bench.
‘And when some of the ovens were on with no extraction, that was another complaint. I felt my eyes with the heat and the fumes building up – it was almost unbearable.’ (Worker 1)
‘It was really horrendous. F didn’t bother about PTFE (flu) and he didn’t tell us when he was putting parts in the oven to cure them.
‘It was only when we smelt the fumes and shouted, “F, have you put something in the curing?” and he would go “Aye”.’ Well I would go like, “Get out of the road until it’s cured”. When the oven cools down it means that the fumes are going to stop.’ (Worker 5)
‘Somebody came in and condemned the gas pipes. For about a week or two we had no gas.
‘The thing is we were led to believe it was the Health and Safety (Executive) because I know for a fact that somebody did complain because they were having odd job men (working on them) . . . . one of the guys actually phoned the Health and Safety and pointed out that they had odd job men working on the gas pipes, shouldn’t it be somebody who is CORGI registered working on the gas pipes.
‘I’m not 100 per cent sure if they came in, if they contacted them or what they did, but there was talk they came in around that time as well.’ (Worker 2)
‘They built the oven themselves. . . And then they had to get people in for the gas burners and I think that’s what it was.
‘I think it was them that noticed that something was wrong. They condemned. They actually cut the gas off.
‘They said, under whatever regulations they work under, that they found dangerous pipes, so they were going to disconnect them.
‘So they disconnected them and left. Then what happened was it was like the two handy men in the place, they were called out.
‘They started working on them to sort the leaks. So it was like a spray they got and what they did was they would put the gas on and they went along the pipes spraying it all and identifying leaks.
‘And then they would fix them. But the pipes were never replaced.’ (Worker 4)
‘I don’t know how much of the footage that you saw of the actual day the blast happened.
‘If you ever get a chance to see any of that you look and see how many people came out there with safety equipment.
‘A fireman commented, “Did everybody say ‘Oh there’s a blast, wait until I take all this safety gear off before I run out’.” Nobody came out with anything on, absolutely nobody.
‘When a building blows up you don’t have time to go and change. You will see, I think, x and y had a pair of cotton overalls.’ (Worker 4)