Deadly chemical leak in Thornton factory changed worker’s life

The incident took place at the AGC Chemicals plant in Thornton in 2014
The incident took place at the AGC Chemicals plant in Thornton in 2014

A worker who was left severely burned when he was drenched by a deadly chemical in a factory accident told a court: “I’ll never be the same person again.”

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David Crellan suffered horrific leg injuries when 4,000 litres of 96 per cent strength sulphuric acid poured on him from a faulty pipe.

He was working in a ‘pitch black’ area of the site when it happened, Preston Crown Court heard.

Mr Crellan, who worked as a chemical process operator, needed surgery after the incident on August 23, 2014.

He was also left with post traumatic stress disorder and has trouble walking.

His employer, AGC Chemicals Europe Ltd, based at Hillhouse International, Thornton, was fined £300,000 over the incident.

The firm, which must also pay £11,275.84 costs, admitted failing to ensure the health and safety of its employees working around harmful substances.

Prosecuting, Sophie Cartwright, said: “David Crellan suffered significant chemical burn injuries to his foot and ankle when 4,000 litres of sulphuric acid of 96 per cent (strength) gushed out of a fractured pipeline he stood on. The hazards are widely known – direct contact with even small quantities can cause serious injury.”

She said the firm employed 175 people at the site where it has made polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) – a polymer with a wide range of uses, including non stick pans and roof coating – since 1952. Concentrated sulphuric acid is used in this process.

The court heard the acid had been carried by ‘poor quality’ uPVC pipes that were inadequately supported and modifications to them were not assessed. Concerns were also raised over lighting in the area known as the bund, where the acid tank was kept.

Mr Crellan had been working a night shift on August 22 when he noticed a small acid leak had developed on a valve.

Attempts to repair it failed.

He then went into the bund, which was described as ‘pitch black’, and as he reached to turn a piece of equipment off he stood on a piece of pipe, which broke and drenched him in the deadly chemical.

Miss Cartwright added: “Mr Crellan placed his foot on a steel section and as he did the pipe failed catastrophically and large quantities of sulphuric acid gushed out of the broken sections. He ran to a hose pipe to try to get a jet of water on his leg. The acid began to burn through his right foot.”

As he tried to remove his shoe, he had to remove his gloves, burning his thumb.

His colleagues rushed to help him, placing his leg in bucket and putting him in a shower.

The bottom of his overalls had become contaminated, beginning to burn his leg, and had to be removed.

He was rushed to Royal Preston Hospital with burns and underwent skin grafting from his right thigh.

He was discharged on August 27 but had to be readmitted as some of the graft did not take and he had to be operated on again.

Mr Crellan returned to work in January 2015 but not to his previous role, as he was nervous about safety and his injuries had affected his ability to walk. In 2017 he was diagnosed with PTSD.

In an impact statement he said the accident was one of the most significant things physically and emotionally to happen to him, adding: “I’ll never be the same person again.
“Overall it’s had a tremendous impact on my life.”

The court heard an HSE probe found ‘multiple failings in managing risk from potential exposure to harmful substances’ as well as fundamental problems with pipeworks not being properly supported.

The problems were highlighted in reports by a consultant employed by AGC but not acted upon.

Defending, Peter Smith said: “We accept the pipework was poor, we accept we should have acted sooner, we accept there was poor lighting.”

He told the court they had a good safety record, had co-operated with the HSE investigation, and had taken steps to remedy matters.

Judge Andrew Woolman said: “Overall, it is clear that these were serious failures by AGC. AGC’s own memo showed that they knew that this was a very poor installation generally.

“The serious risks of a failure are obvious, and the engineers seem to have given this problem far too low a priority.”

He said the firm had an unblemished safety record - but said there was a systemic failure in dealing with this particular risk.

AGC declined to comment after the judgement.


Speaking after the hearing HSE inspector Tim Beaumont said: “This incident could have easily been avoided if the defendant had taken more care in acting on the advice of independent examiners.

“A very simple and cheap repair to support the pipework that failed would have prevented this incident altogether.”