Oil drum safety alert after death of worker

The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) has been urged to issue an immediate safety alert about the opening of empty oil drums, because a young apprentice was killed in a workplace explosion.

Cork City Coroner’s Court was told yesterday that Donal Scanlon, 21, of Clashmore, Co Waterford, a second-year apprentice at B&C Services, based at the Foxhole Industrial Estate, in Youghal, Co Cork, suffered fatal head injuries in a blast at the plant.

He was using a plasma torch to cut the lid off an empty, 45-gallon oil drum on November 18, 2015.

Company co-director, Mark Coakley, told coroner, Philip Comyn, that their staff often used a plasma torch to cut the lid off empty drums, which were then used to store scrap metal.

His co-director, Ivan Bryan, said he would normally remove one of two bungs from drum lids beforehand. But, in this case, two bungs were found intact on the drum after the accident.

Mr Coakley told the inquest that, at around 9.25am that day, he heard a loud explosion and turned to see Mr Scanlon lying unresponsive on the ground nearby, with a serious head injury.

He contacted the emergency services and applied a towel to the wound.

National ambulance service paramedics, along with East Cork Rapid Response’s Dr Hugh Doran, and advanced paramedic, Paul Traynor, arrived within minutes and helped stabilise Mr Scanlon for a medevac, from Youghal GAA Club to Cork University Hospital (CUH), by Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 117.

Mr Scanlon was pronounced dead at CUH the next day. The assistant state pathologist, Dr Margot Bolster, said that the cause of death was severe brain injury, due to a penetrating head wound.

HSA inspector, Frances Murphy, who investigated the accident, told the inquest that tests on the residue inside the empty barrel found a high probability of traces of kerosene, a flammable substance, whose vapours could ignite at temperatures as low as 38C.

She said the plasma torch had probably ignited fumes, which had built up inside the drum, triggering the fatal blast.

The jury returned a verdict of death due to an occupational accident.

Mr Bryan said that while angle grinders are often used in the industry to remove drum lids, B&C had been using plasma torches without being aware of the risks involved.

He said they learned, after the tragedy, that similar explosions had occurred when angle grinders were used to remove the lids, but because the drums had been lying on their sides, the explosions had blown the drums sideways.

In Mr Scanlon’s case, he had been standing directly over an upright drum.

Ms Murphy said B&C Services co-operated fully with the HSA and garda investigation, and subsequently pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to provide a safe and well-organised system of work.

The company was fined €10,000 at Cork Circuit Criminal Court.

She said the HSA would recommend against such oil drum-cutting procedures and, in the absence of guidelines in Ireland, she said drums should be flushed or vented, before any cutting procedure.

The jury advised the HSA to issue an immediate safety alert about the procedure and asked the agency to review UK safety guidelines, with the possibility of drafting new guidelines or protocols here for the removal of oil-drum tops.

Both Mr Coakley and Mr Bryan described Mr Scanlon as a dedicated, conscientious, and diligent worker, who was popular with staff and customers.

“I couldn’t talk highly enough about him,” Mr Bryan said.

Mr Comyn, and the company directors, extended their sympathies to Mr Scanlon’s family.


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