LPG tanks, shown in this UKLPG photo, can contain butane or propane

UK Prepares to Replace Thousands of Buried LPG Pipes

The government's report on the May 2004 explosion and collapse of the ICL Plastics factory in Glasgow, caused by a gas leak, was released this month. A timetable to replace 210,000 commercial and home installations has been agreed to, and a push is on to hire and train gas engineers.

The leader of Britain's Health and Safety Executive has responded to a government-appointed judge's report on the May 11, 2004, explosion that caused nine deaths and 33 injuries at the ICL Plastics factory in Glasgow, Scotland. Liquefied petroleum gas leaked from an on-site underground metal pipe into the basement of the factory, and the explosion when it ignited caused the four-story factory to collapse.

Lord Gill's report concluded the disaster could have been avoided. He also said the factors that caused the explosion were not atypical of users of bulk storage LPG (butane and propane). He faulted HSE's oversight of ICL for failing to appreciate the significance of buried pipework, failing to make follow-up visits promptly, and incautiously accepting a compromise with the company after recommending that its buried pipes be excavated to check their condition. Key findings of the report are available here.

The factory employed 66 workers at the time of the explosion. They manufactured plastics products and coatings. On Aug. 28, 2007, ICL Tech Limited and ICL Plastics Ltd were fined £200,000 each in a Glasgow court after pleading guilty to breaching Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

Responding to the report, HSE Chief Executive Geoffrey Podger repeated HSE's apologies to the victims and their families that his agency had not successfully completed an intervention in time. "Although the owners and managers of premises remain primarily accountable for managing the risks of the LPG they use, Lord Gill does recommend a number of actions, which touch on HSE as the body which (together with Local Authorities) regulates LPG hazards in industrial and commercial premises," Podger said in a written statement. "HSE has already done a great deal since the accident at ICL Plastics, especially in preparing for a comprehensive programme by the UK LPG suppliers for buried metal pipe work to be replaced with newer and more robust plastic pipes. The UKLPG industry signed up to the replacement plan in June this year and work has already started, ramping up in October, following preparatory data collection, risk assessments, and a promotional campaign to alert duty holders to the need to take action.

"This was a terrible tragedy, and lessons have been learned. We are well on the way to introducing new industry practices which will further lessen the risk of such an incident happening again. We have worked hard with the LPG suppliers and their trade association UKLPG to develop a plan to replace the pipes, using a risk-based approach to tackle the ones which pose the greatest risk first.

"Moreover, HSE have gone further than the remit of Lord Gill's Inquiry as we are tackling the LPG supply to domestic households, as well. This is largely outside HSE's remit, but we believe that public safety will be best served if we also help householders identify and control risks caused by buried metal pipes. We recognise that replacing buried LPG pipe work has urgent priority. Much of what we have already done is reflected in the Inquiry recommendations, although we agree with Lord Gill that there is more to be done."

HSE estimates there are 60,000 commercial LPG installations and 150,000 domestic installations in England, Scotland, and Wales. UKLPG, a trade association for the LPG industry in Great Britain, agreed on a retrofit plan last month with HSE that will move into high gear in October 2009, once a survey shows which sites deserve priority, although replacement work has already started. Businesses with buried metal service pipes will be required to replace it with more durable materials, such as polyethylene. Higher-risk pipework is targeted to be replaced by the end of 2013. A fast-track training and qualification process is being developed to increase the number of qualified Gas Safe engineers.

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