Steel firm fined for safety failures as third man dies

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The Independent Online

The steel company Corus was fined £300,000 for negligence in a serious accident at its Llanwern plant as the death toll from the blast at its Port Talbot site grew to three. And a Welsh Assembly member said she warned the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, about the furnace danger in Port Talbot a year or more ago.

In yesterday's case, Cardiff Crown Court was told Corus was guilty of a "gross failure" at Llanwern, where a contractor was paralysed from the chest down after an explosion. Managers had failed to respond to repeated warnings over a dangerous leak of water that caused the explosion when it came into contact with super-hot slag. Corus UK Ltd admitted two criminal charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 of endangering employees and endangering the public, including contractors.

The £300,000 penalty (plus costs of £11,600) is the largest single fine to be imposed on a manufacturing company under health and safety law. In the accident, a chunk of about 350kg of falling red-hot slag knocked 39-year-old Russell Bagnall off a scaffolding ladder in September last year, breaking his spine. The maintenance worker, from Newport, had been repairing the lining on converter number three next door to the converter that exploded. The force blew in steel doors and destroyed walls.

Judge Hickinbottom criticised Corus for failing to act to ensure the safety of its staff, saying it was lucky more people had not been injured and that no one had been killed.

"The incident was clearly a most serious one and was caused by the defendant company's failure to meet statutory safety requirements," he said. "Steel making is an inherently dangerous because it involves high temperatures. Mr Bagnall suffered catastrophic injuries. The explosion had a devastating and permanent effect on his life and the lives of his family."

At Port Talbot last Thursday, two men were killed and 13 injured when blast furnace number five blew apart, showering workers with molten iron. The dead were named as Stephen Galsworthy, 26, and Andrew Hutin, 20. The third victim, a man in his fifties, died in intensive care from his heavy burns. Five of the men injured were still in a critical condition in hospital in Swansea on life-support machines, and five were in general wards, a hospital spokesman said. Two other survivors went home over the weekend.

Janet Davies, a Plaid Cymru Assembly Member (AM), said she had raised concerns last year with Mr Morgan over the Port Talbot plant, in particular about the number five furnace.

Alun Cairns, a Tory AM, whose father works at the Port Talbot plant, said there had been several "breakouts" from the furnace over the past five years, although none was as serious as the explosion last Thursday. There had been no such incidents at the other furnace, he said. Staff were concerned two weeks ago when Corus announced that the furnace would not need to be re-lined until 2005.

Mr Morgan said he had held talks with Corus management last April after the warnings. But details could not be divulged because of a continuing police investigation into the explosion, he said. The Health and Safety Executive is also investigating.