Hydrocarbon Tank Cleaning Fireball

A UK company was prosecuted and heavily fined (29th October) after serious injuries were caused by safety failings in the method used by the company to clean large fuel bowsers (tanks) deployed in the aviation industry.

It seems the cleaning method required persons to climb through a manhole cover on top of six-metre-long 20,000 litre aviation fuel tanks to clean the inside by applying a highly flammable solvent to a cloth and then wiping down the walls, whilst holding a lamp.

In this instance, since the lamp inside the tank was getting hot, the person inside the tank carrying out the cleaning pulled the plug from its socket. As he did this, a spark caused the fumes to ignite and he was surrounded by flames, which were witnessed shooting into the air up to two meters above the manhole cover. The fire was so hot that it melted the visor on his mask and his protective suit, so that only the elastic from the collar and cuffs were left.

The HSE press release states the person suffered multiple burns over most of his body, including his arms, legs and face; his hair and eyebrows were burnt off; and his lips badly burnt. He was in hospital for three months and is now almost totally paralysed.

The investigation by Britain’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the method of cleaning the fuel tanks with a highly flammable solvent had been used since 2007 (the incident took place in 2011), but the company had failed to carry out any kind of risk assessment. In addition, there was no supervision of workers or monitoring of the fumes inside the tank, and the masks and lighting provided were entirely unsuitable. Workers also had to take it in turns to clean each tank as the build-up of fumes from the solvent made them feel sick.

The day after the incident, the company decided it did not need to use a solvent to clean the fuel tank and instead used soapy water.

Information on preventing workplace fires and explosions is available at www.hse.gov.uk/fireandexplosion.

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