A manufacturer and supplier of body trim parts for the automotive industry has been fined £1.6m after a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak and an explosion at its factory in the north east of England left five people seriously ill and a teenager with first degree burns.

Both incidents took place at Faltec Europe’s plant in Boldon, Tyne and Wear, within one year.

Two of the company’s employees, as well as two agency workers and a local resident contracted Legionnaires’ disease between October 2014 and June 2015, Newcastle Crown Court was told. Legionnaires’ disease is a severe, sometimes fatal, lung infection caused by legionella bacteria.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the outbreak occurred because Faltec had failed to manage the water cooling systems on its premises. The legionella bacteria within the water supply grew to “potentially lethal levels”, it said.

The court was also told that, on 16 October 2015, a 19-year-old operator sustained first degree burns to his face and arms when he attempted to recover a part that had fallen off the production line.

The machine being used created an explosive atmosphere during normal operations. When the part the employee was retrieving came into contact with an electrostatic grid, a spark caused a dust explosion.

The HSE said Faltec had failed to implement control measures to protect its workers from risks related to explosive atmospheres, despite explosions having previously occurred at the factory.

Faltec Europe has been served 14 enforcement notices by the HSE since 2013, six of which relate to legionella bacteria and fire or explosion risks.

The company was handed an improvement notice in September 2013 over its failure to control the risks from legionella exposure after the HSE found drift eliminators on two of the cooling towers were damaged and ineffective at controlling aerosol drift.

It was handed another improvement notice in May 2015 after stagnant pockets of water were found in the factory’s cooling and re-circulation system. Stagnation can encourage the growth of bio-film, which could contribute to Legionnaire’s disease.

A month later the HSE served an immediate prohibition notice on the company over its failure to “ensure that plant and equipment, specifically evaporative water cooling towers and associated pipework systems, are maintained in a clean condition and are designed in such a way to avoid water stagnation, to prevent exposure of your employees, or persons not in your employment, to aerosols containing legionella bacteria”.

The executive said it had worked with Public Health England and South Tyneside Council to investigate both incidents and bring the prosecution.

Relating to the legionella outbreak, Faltec Europe pleaded guilty to breaching ss 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act and was fined £800,000. It was fined a further £800,000 for the explosion, after pleading guilty to a breach of s 2(1) of the act, and must also pay £75,160 costs.

Faltec Europe’s 2017 financial statement, filed on Companies House in April, said its directors had forecast the fine for the two incidents to amount to £1,638,000 based on legal advice. “There is then the opportunity for the amount of the fine to be appealed,” it said.

After the hearing, HSE inspectors Fiona McGarry and Michael Kingston said: “Legionnaires’ disease is a relatively uncommon, but potentially fatal form of pneumonia. When water systems are not properly controlled and maintained there is a risk of exposing both employees and the wider community to Legionella bacteria. Following the outbreak, and HSE enforcement, improved control measures have now been implemented by the company to better manage the Legionella risks at the site.

“Furthermore, where dangerous substances create a fire and explosion risk, there needs to be adequate control measures in place to prevent an explosion or mitigate the consequences. The risks should have been assessed before the machine was put into use and the previous incidents should have resulted in a comprehensive review by a competent person. Operators need to be trained on the fire and explosion risks and understand the required controls.”

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