Independent report into ICL plastics disaster finds health and safety regime 'dangerously dysfunctional'

A view of the remains of the four-storey factory the day after the explosion
A view of the remains of the four-storey factory the day after the explosion

On 11 May 2004, nine workers were killed and more than thirty-three injured in an explosion at the ICL Plastics plant of Grovepark Mills in Maryhill, Glasgow. This was the worst health and safety incident in Scotland since 1988. An independent study into the health and safety regime at the factory before the explosion has today been released.

Submitted by Ed on September 2, 2007

On sentencing ICL Plastics Ltd and ICL Tech Ltd to fines of £200,000 on 28th August 2007, Lord Brodie stated the following in relation to mitigating factors:

"This is not a case of failure to heed warnings or where a decision was taken to run a risk in order to save money. The companies apparently have a good safety record prior to May 2004, going back to the 1960’s."

An independent report into the ICL 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 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. 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.

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."

The executive summary and full report are both available online, along with the judge's sentencing statement.



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Submitted by agron-e on April 25, 2009