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Fatal explosion ‘one of worst’ industry accidents

An explosion that killed one employee and seriously injured another at a chemical plant was described as one of the worst in the history of the pharmaceutical industry in Ireland.

Cork Circuit Court heard an ambulance that carried a body from the scene was so "chemically contaminated", it was decommissioned afterwards.

The sentencing hearing against Corden Pharma Ltd, trading as Corden Pharmachem, will continue before Judge Patrick J Moran today.

Michael Boylan, an inspector with the Health and Safety Authority, said the accident happened at 1.20am on Apr 28, 2008, at the company’s plant at Little Island, Co Cork.

At the time, 150 people worked there but, that night, five employees and a security contractor were present. The company now employs nine people in research and development and non-manufacturing activities at a different location.

Liam Nodwell was killed in the explosion and Jimmy O’Sullivan was injured. Mr Boylan described it as one of the worst accidents since the pharmaceutical industry started. Debris from the accident was found 150 metres away.

The inspector said the injuries to Mr O’Sullivan and the late Mr Nodwell were of a degree not previously encountered by the HSE. He said the ambulance carrying the late Mr Nodwell was so chemically contaminated it had to be decommissioned.

"The injuries were not encountered previously by the medical profession. Mr Nodwell had burns to in excess of 90% of his body and he had puncture marks from the glass lining of the cylinder," Mr Boylan said.

The inspector described the process which was taking place at the time and how it went wrong.

"It is our understanding an operator error occurred. Liam Nodwell made an error in the sequence, in the order in which the chemicals were to be put in the chemical vessel which measured 2.5 cubic metres.

"When the acetone was not added, half of the contents were in the vessel and the two chemicals — PNO and DECC — started to react together. They created a chemical reaction. They generated heat without the acetone to act as a means to take the heat out of the chemistry," he said.

As the reaction was generating voluminous quantities of gas and heat, the vessel also had heat under it like a kettle, Mr Boylan said. "It would be like an aerosol can going onto a fire. The vessel could not release the pressure quickly enough. The system was not designed to release that amount of gas. It had a minimal type of control systems for this type of chemical reaction. They were relying on the operator never making a mistake knowing the chemistry could involve catastrophic failure. They failed to assess the risk of acetone being omitted."

He said Mr O’Sullivan realised that Mr Nodwell had made an error and that the chemical reaction was occurring. "They ran out on to the floor to close down valves. But they ran to where the explosion occurred. The control room where they had been was the only area that survived. If they had stayed where they were…"

While there has been a plea of guilty, there is extensive defence evidence in mitigation to be given today. Patrick Burke, who represented the company previously, entered guilty pleas to four separate charges on behalf of Corden Pharma Ltd.

The charges to which the guilty pleas were entered were, firstly, not determining the risks from the process and not determining and implementing the necessary control measures, as a consequence of which Liam Nodwell, an employee, died, and Jimmy O’Sullivan, an employee, suffered a personal injury. Secondly, failing to document the possibility of Acetone emission from a chemical reaction and failing to implement suitable control measures to prevent such emission; thirdly, failing to prepare and revise as appropriate adequate plans and procedures to be taken in case of emergence or serious and imminent danger arising from the production of production of 2-Cyano-3-Methylpyridine in a reactor vessel and, finally, failing to ensure the design and provision of the particular reactor vessel was safe and without risk.