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Steel Worker Narrowly Escapes Death After Being Showered with Molten Metal

By Senior Associate, Personal Injury

A furnace operator narrowly escaped death when he was showered in molten metal following an explosion at Tata Steel’s Rotherham plant.

Liquid Iron CropThe worker suffered life-threatening injuries when a control system fault caused 25 tonnes of molten metal to spill from a furnace.

When he and a colleague attempted to cool the spill by hosing it down with water the ensuing explosion covered him with scalding liquid metal.

His fellow workers applied a burn shield before he was then rushed to the specialist burns unit at Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield where he spent the next three weeks in an induced coma.

After undergoing a number of skin grafts together with reconstructive surgery to his eyes, ears and face, the worker eventually returned to his job although he is now unable to work in high-temperature areas.

The incident, which occurred on 9 March 2012, was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which prosecuted Tata Steel UK Ltd for safety breaches.

Sheffield Crown Court heard how the furnace control system had been damaged by fire a few weeks prior to the incident. A temporary fix was applied until new parts could be fitted but on the day of the accident it was thought the fault had been fixed.

In the minutes leading up to the explosion, molten metal was poured from the furnace into a ladle for the first time since the removal of the temporary fix. When a fault alarm sounded, the furnace became locked in position. But when a worker tried to reverse the action to prevent any more metal from pouring from the furnace, nothing happened. 

As a consequence, molten metal continued to pour from the furnace into the ladle until it became full at which point, the ladle moved away, leaving the path clear for a further 25 tonnes of molten metal to pour from the furnace into the pit below.

The subsequent HSE work accident investigation identified failings by Tata to recognise risks that exposed its workers to unnecessary danger. The investigation found that the company had no work procedures for dealing with molten metal spillages and it had become normal practice for workers to hose water onto such spills to cool them down.

It is well known within the industry that molten metal will explode if water penetrates and becomes trapped under the surface. So-called ‘water contamination’ results in a build-up of steam vapour that causes a sudden dramatic rise in pressure leading to a massive explosion.

After pleading guilty to two breaches of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, Tata Steel UK Ltd was fined £180,000 and ordered to pay more than £82,000 in costs.

The provisional figure for the number of fatal work accidents in 2014/15 is 142. The average figure for the last five years is 156. Every one of these tragic, and more often than not, wholly preventable deaths leaves a family devastated at the loss of their loved one. In this case, although the worker concerned was incredibly lucky he wasn’t killed, he has been left scarred for life.

For a steel manufacturing company to have no safe working procedures in place for dealing with molten metal spillages frankly beggars belief. It is incredibly dangerous to attempt to cool molten metal down with water and the fact that hosing down such spillages had become normal practice illustrates the unacceptable lack of safety information and training that was available to employees at the time.

Tracey Benson is a personal injury lawyer at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.

If you have sustained a serious injury in an accident at work, call our No Win No Fee personal injury lawyers 24 hours 7 days a week on freephone 0800 916 9046 or contact us online and we will call you back.

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