The Ineos oil and petrochemical complex at Grangemouth is facing a legal crackdown by the UK government’s health and safety watchdog to prevent leaks, fireballs and explosions from killing workers, The Ferret can reveal.
The company’s refinery at the site has also been condemned as “poor” for pollution in 2014 by the Scottish Government’s environmental regulator. This is the fourth time in the last five years the plant has been officially criticised for its toxic emissions into the atmosphere.
Our revelations have prompted concern from trade unions and an occupational health expert described them as “a matter of profound concern”. However, Ineos, said it would be “baseless” to suggest that it had failed to take its commitment to safety, health and environmental performance seriously.
A report released under freedom of information law reveals that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) launched a legal action requiring the Swiss-based multinational to identify “safety critical tasks” that were necessary to prevent a “major accident hazard” at its ethylene cracker plant at Grangemouth.
One of the major hazards was described as “a leak or rupture from the top of the propylene tower with the potential for a fireball or vapour cloud explosion which could give rise to multiple on-site fatalities.” The company has been given until the end of April 2016 to comply.
The ethylene gas cracker is at the heart of Ineos’s multiple operations at Grangemouth, and it converts ethane and propane into products for the chemical industry. It has a production capacity of a million tonnes a year.
INEOS is planning to import ethane by boat from fracking plants in the US to compensate for dwindling supplies from the North Sea and the firm is constructing a huge new tank at the site to store the gas. In the future, though, it wants to frack for shale gas across large areas of central Scotland to supply the cracker.
But HSE inspectors have expressed concern about the cracker’s current safety procedures. The plant was visited on 27 May 2015 by David Stephen and a colleague from the HSE hazardous installations directorate in Edinburgh.
The purpose of the visit was to “inspect the competence management systems” at the plant under the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) regulations. The internal report of the inspection obtained by The Ferret discloses that an earlier inspection in December 2014 had already begun a 17-month “action legal” obliging Ineos to remedy its failure to specify key tasks required to avoid disasters.
The May 2015 inspection also concluded that there were shortfalls in the company’s safety arrangements. “It was found that there were no designated competency standards for the safety critical tasks selected,” it said.
For one task, “there was a lack of clarity around exactly what was required and who could perform it”. On another there was “some ambiguity around the importance of safety measures such as cordoning and around how, in practice, they should be delivered to reduce the risk of a major accident hazard to as low as reasonable achievable.”
Inspectors noted that Ineos was taking action to tackle the issues at the cracker plant. They decided to give the company a “competence” rating of 30, on a scale of 10 to 60.
There was a lack of clarity around exactly what was required and who could perform it HSE inspection report
HSE also reprimanded Ineos for safety breaches at its refinery, which shares the 1,700-acre site at Grangemouth. On 4 September 2015 HSE served a statutory notice on the company to remedy “a failure to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the safety of persons which arise from dangerous substances”.
The danger was that workers would be exposed to petrol when a storage tank was being drained. The deadline for complying with the notice was originally 16 October 2015, then 27 November 2015, but has now been extended another four months to 11 March 2016.
This is the 12th improvement notice served on three Ineos facilities at Grangemouth – the refinery, the petrochemical plant and a site services operation – since September 2011. Previous notices, which have all been complied with, were to rectify failings that could have caused leaks or injuries.
Another regulator, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), has rated the performance of the refinery in controlling pollution as “poor” for 2014 under two different control regimes. One rating has been challenged by Ineos and was improved as result.
The other was “due to loss of vapour recovery unit following pump failure” leading to “unabated emissions”. The Ineos refinery has been rated as poor by Sepa under one regime or the other in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014.
Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling, warned that Ineos’s record called into question its ability to ensure that fracking was carried out without harming worker and community health.
He said: “It will come as a shock to many communities to learn that HSE has issued multiple improvement notices for one company over the years and found safety critical tasks even in a large plant had not been properly identified with potential disastrous consequences.”
He pointed out that chemical plants presented complex, demanding and potentially very hazardous threats and needed effective risk management. “It is a matter of profound concern if these things are not currently happening at Grangemouth as HSE actions would seem to indicate.”
Watterson also criticised HSE for extending the deadlines for Ineos to comply with its demands. “There are growing worries about the capacity of regulators such as HSE to enforce, where necessary, the health and safety laws in a climate of cuts, soft enforcement and attacks on red tape,” he added.
“To discover that a major oil industry multinational which has apparently received multiple improvement notices from HSE in recent years has been given a number of extensions on complying with regulations is therefore a matter of real concern.”
The Scottish secretary of the Unite union, Pat Rafferty, stressed that the safety of the 1,300-strong workforce at Grangemouth was paramount. “The HSE and Sepa data demonstrates the massive safety requirements of the site,” he told The Ferret.
“We believe the best way to meet that challenge is with a robust pool of trade union health and safety representatives.” It was “regrettable” that the trade union health and safety infrastructure at the site had been disbanded in the aftermath of an industrial dispute in October 2013, he argued.
“In recent times we have been working with the company to revitalise trade union safety rep numbers at the site. It is our firm belief that in order to manage safety properly, workers need a voice on the site reflecting their concerns.”
The HSE pointed out that Grangemouth, like all major hazard sites, was subject to a targeted programme of inspections to ensure that health and safety risks were being appropriately managed. “Formal enforcement action is not an unexpected outcome of such inspections,” said an HSE spokesman.
HSE had agreed to extend the deadline for the latest improvement notice on petrol exposure at the request of Ineos, he said. “It was granted on the basis that significant progress had been made in compliance to date.”
Grangemouth has one of the best safety records in the chemicals industry Richard Longden, INEOS
In response to questions from The Ferret, Ineos issued a detailed statement – published in full below – defending its health, safety and environmental record. To suggest that Ineos does not take its commitment to safety, health and environmental performance seriously is simply baseless,” said the company’s group communications manager, Richard Longden.
“All operators, including the Ineos site at Grangemouth, must define all major accident hazards and implement management systems and procedures to mitigate. The regulators continually inspect our activities to ensure compliance,” he said.
“As with all operators we work closely with the regulator to identify improvements and to drive towards minimising any residual risk,” he added. “We are regularly inspected and held to account by the regulators.”
The “action legal” taken by the HSE was “the lowest level of action that it can issue to an operator,” he pointed put. “This is not unusual for facilities as complex as Grangemouth.”
He added: “We want to aspire to be best in class. To this end we will continue to work closely with HSE, employees and the community to address each and every issue and concern as they arise.”
According to Longden, regulators regarded the number of improvement notices at Grangemouth as “not exceptional given the size and complexity of the facility.” They also accepted that there was “no immediate risk from the site”, he said.
On the most recent improvement notice, the company was working with the HSE to set a best practice standard that could be shared with the rest of the industry, Longden explained. “For this reason both parties have agreed to extend the notice to ensure we achieve the best possible outcome for the Industry.”
Sepa’s move to improve one of the company’s two poor ratings was “recognition of the year on year improvement in areas such as flaring, emissions to both air and water quality,” he argued.
“Grangemouth has one of the best safety records in the chemicals industry and 2014 was its best ever year. INEOS’s worldwide safety record across its 65 sites is now twice as good as the industry average and is on a continuously improving trend.”
Letter from the Health and Safety Executive to Ineos Grangemouth
Health and Safety Executive inspection report on Ineos Grangemouth
Full statement from Ineos
A version of this story was also published by The Times on 9 December 2015.