Air Liquide (UK) Limited has been hit with a £182,000 ($243,000) court bill after workers were exposed to dangerous vapours, the Stoke Sentinel reported.

The company devised an in-house system to dispose of bottles at its Tunstall depot after failing to arranging for a specialist contractor to handle the disposal.

It involved a man in a bomb disposal suit placing the bottles on to a box and two workers wearing breathing apparatus sawing through the bottles.

But, on 7th February 2015 the two men using the saw were not wearing breathing apparatus when a small amount of liquid spilled out. They were left struggling to breathe and were taken to hospital but did not require treatment.

Now the company has been fined £160,000 ($216,000) and ordered to pay £22,611.60 ($30,160.46) prosecution costs at Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court.

Prosecutor Craig Morris said the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) launched an investigation after an incident at Air Liquide’s depot at Newfields Industrial Estate, High Street, Tunstall, on 7th February 2015.

Morris said, “The company developed a system for the disposal of bottles that had built up over the years. Many were heavily corroded and unmarked. Rather than arranging for a specialist contractor to handle the disposal, the defendant decided to deal with the issue in-house.”

“About 50 different substances were potentially contained within the bottles.”

“An employee wearing a bomb disposal suit took hold of the bottle and placed in into a box. Two other employees would operate a saw and cut through the bottle. They would move away from the area and the employee in the bomb disposal suit would take the bottle off the box and away for disposal.”

The court heard the system worked until the two men operating the saw stopped wearing breathing apparatus.

On 7th February 2015 a small amount of liquid came out of a bottle which had just been sawn.

Morris said, “One of the workers’ eyes started to sting and tingle. He could not breathe properly. His throat became tight and he was gasping. He remembered someone grabbing him. His colleague felt his eyes start to sting and he felt breathless.”

“They were checked out by fire officers and went to hospital for further checks but were both released.”

The court heard the company, which made a £10.5m ($14m) pre-tax profit in 2016, has a strong health and safety record.

Morris added, “People had no idea what was in the bottles. It is puzzling to the prosecution how they have stepped so far away from the basic industry guide. The removal of the breathing apparatus increased the risk.”

“There were 79 bottles that had been dealt with by the time of this incident, 79 lucky dip exercises where people were exposed to risks.”

Air Liquide (UK) Limited, of Station Road, Birmingham, pleaded guilty to failing to discharge general health, safety and welfare to employees.

Bernard Thorogood, mitigating, said, “The company is here to be counted and accepts that things went wrong. The workers did not require treatment and returned to work.”

He said the business inherited about 3,500 bottles that it needed to dispose of and many were disposed of in a variety of safe ways. 

“The company does not skimp in any way when it comes to safety. Very experienced men devised the process. This was a system which could have operated safely. Before the breathing apparatus were abandoned things ran safely.

“The company has safety at the heart and front of its operations and a very good record.”

Judge Paul Glenn said cutting through the bottles was like ‘Russian roulette’ because it was not known what the bottles contained.

He said, “What happened would not have happened had they all been wearing breathing apparatus. It is conceded by the company the risk assessment was not reviewed. That led to a method of working not as safe as it should have been.”

“I accept the company sincerely regrets what occurred and I acknowledge the company’s excellent health and safety record. No members of the public were put at risk.”

After the hearing, a spokesman for Air Liquide UK Limited told the Stoke Sentinel, “The health and safety of our colleagues, customers and members of the public has always been, and remains, our foremost concern. The incident at our Tunstall site in 2015, resulted from our standards not being met and we have taken steps to prevent any recurrence. We are committed to continuously improving the procedures at our sites in order to achieve the highest safety standards in the workplace.”