Ineos breach at Grangemouth risks ‘catastrophic’ accident

The oil and petrochemical giant, Ineos, has broken rules meant to prevent disasters and protect communities in central Scotland, according to a UK government safety watchdog.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has served a statutory improvement notice on the Petroineos oil refinery at Grangemouth for breaching regulations designed to control “major accident hazards”.

HSE told the company that it had failed to carry out an adequate assessment of the risks of human error causing an explosion, fire or other accident – and hence failed to limit the “consequences for human health and the environment.”

Critics are warning that Ineos has put communities around Grangemouth at risk from a “catastrophic” accident. Residents say they are concerned and disappointed.

Ineos, with an annual turnover of £46 billion, has an array of petrochemical plants at Grangemouth alongside the oil refinery run as a joint venture with China. It also brings in oil from the North Sea and champions fracking for underground shale gas in Scotland and England.

Ineos is chaired by Britain’s richest man, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, and has recently made a series of high-profile sports sponsorship deals. It has backed the British Americas Cup sailing team with £110 million, the British Tour De France cycling team with £35 million and is organising a bid by Eliud Kipchoge to run a marathon in under two hours in the autumn.

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The HSE’s online enforcement register reveals that Petroineos Manufacturing Scotland Limited at Grangemouth was served with an improvement notice on 14 February 2019. The notice said that the 2015 Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations had been breached.

HSE told the company: “You have not carried a suitable/sufficient risk assessment of human reliability in your work activities as part of necessary measures to prevent a major accident and limit its consequences for human health and the environment.”

HSE has given Petroineos a “revised compliance date” of 28 February 2020 to abide by the improvement notice. This suggests that the original date for compliance had to be changed.

The company was also served a second improvement notice on 14 February requiring a central control room monitor displaying “safety critical information” to be repaired. According to the HSE, this was complied with on 27 March.

Friends of the Earth Scotland pointed out that human error was often a factor in major accidents. Mistakes by operators helped cause the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 in Ukraine and the oil depot fire at Buncefield in Herfordshire in 2005, it said.

“Ineos has failed to assess what could go wrong if its staff make mistakes during a potential major accident,” alleged the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“This is clearly a gross error given the potential for a massive fire and explosions, all in proximity to a town full of people.”

Dixon also criticised HSE: “Given the disastrous consequences of the worst case accident at the Grangemouth refinery it is very surprising HSE have given Ineos more than a year to put things right.”

In the last six years HSE has served a total of eight improvement notices on Petroineos in Scotland: two in 2019, two in 2017, one in 2016, two in 2015 and one in 2014. Apart from the latest one, they are all listed as having been complied with.

They included other breaches of the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations (COMAH), as well as breaches of safety rules covering pressure systems, dangerous substances and health and safety at work. In 2016 The Ferret reported that Ineos was facing a legal crackdown by HSE to prevent leaks, fireballs and explosions from killing workers.

Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling, described Ineos as a company that prided itself on its ability to ensure health and safety in the petrochemical industry.

But its track record “does not indicate acceptable practice in a sector where management failures can be catastrophic,” he said.

“The very latest HSE improvement notice relates again to potentially very serious deficiencies in Petroineos risk assessments that threaten workers, the public and the environment. Such repeated failures do not instil confidence in this company”.

Grangemouth Community Council’s vice-convener, Walter Inglis, expressed “deep concern” about HSE’s move. “People living in proximity to COMAH-regulated facilities depend on the operators to behave responsibly and to comply with their safety case to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the community in which they operate,” he told The Ferret.

“It is disappointing in the extreme to find that the HSE has found it necessary to serve an improvement notice on Petroineos having identified that the company has failed to carry out an adequate assessment of the risks of human error.”

The Health and Safety Executive promised it would continue to check on Grangemouth. “The outstanding improvement notice relates to a complex body of work to improve the risk assessment of human reliability, requiring time to complete,” said an HSE spokesperson.

“This is one of a series of measures in place to prevent major accidents. Petroineos will continue to be subject to a proactive system of inspections concerning their measures to prevent major accidents and limit their consequences in accordance with the COMAH Regulations.”

The spokesperson added: “In line with HSE’s enforcement policy where any gaps in the preventive or mitigation measures are identified, these will be assessed and appropriate, proportionate action taken.”

Ineos did not respond to requests to comment. On its website the company stresses that Grangemouth is bound by strict HSE regulations and that one of its “key values” is “excellence in safety, health and environmental performance”.

Ineos adds: “We are committed to ensuring that our facilities have as low an impact as possible on local people and the environment to ensure that we are a responsible neighbour.

“Our commitment is to protect the health and safety of our employees, the communities in which we operate and the users of our products. We aim to meet or exceed all relevant legislative requirements and minimise the effect of our operations on the environment.

“We take our responsibility for the environment very seriously and remain committed to delivering a record of responsible environmental performance across all our operations at Grangemouth.”

This story was updated at 14.45 on 10 May 2019 to include comments from the Health and Safety Executive. Cover image ©Kirsty Smith licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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