Firm fined thousands after barge released dangerous gas next to warship alongside Portsmouth Naval Base

Barge operator Serco Ltd has been fined thousands of pounds for the offence
Barge operator Serco Ltd has been fined thousands of pounds for the offence
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A BARGE operator has been fined thousands of pounds after a vessel released a dangerous gas that hospitalised two crew members.

Serco Ltd admitted an offence at Portsmouth Crown Court over the health and safety of workers on barge 1706, which was alongside a warship at Portsmouth Naval Base.

The barge was being operated under a contract with the Ministry of Defence and was taking waste water from the ship on July 6, 2011.

Crew started to smell rotten eggs – the distinctive smell of hydrogen sulphide.

One of the crew used the only personal gas detector on board and measured the gas at 57 parts per million (ppm) – more than the prescribed danger limits of 5ppm.

The operations manager was contacted but the process was not stopped. It was thought the monitor was malfunctioning.

Shortly afterwards the gas monitor registered a rate of 87ppm and crew started to feel unwell and the barge was evacuated.

Two of the crew were taken to hospital.

A Maritime and Coastguard Agency investigation revealed a number of health and safety failings by the operator.

Failings included leaving tank lids open, safety equipment not being maintained or calibrated and the crew not being trained to use it.

Serco Ltd was fined £50,000, with £60,716 in costs and a £120 victim surcharge.

Judge Roger Hetherington said: ‘There was a failure of local management to ensure that the written instructions were complied with.

‘This failure is made all the worse because the point had been identified that on more than one occasion audits had been carried out and it was noted that tank content gauges were not active and the raising of tank lids was used instead.

‘It is of course significant that, despite the serious risk, it was fortunate that there were no deaths or serious injuries.’

He took into account the firm’s early guilty plea.

Julie Carlton, seafarer safety and health manager at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: ‘This was a very serious yet avoidable incident.

‘A properly functioning safety management system would have identified the need to maintain and calibrate the gas monitor correctly, ensuring it was in good working order.

‘Then perhaps the crew and their supervisor would have trusted its reading, and recognised the need to stop the operation as soon as the hazard was identified.

‘Companies must constantly be alert to risks and hazards involved in their operations and review and update their safety management systems at regular intervals accordingly.

‘Frontline staff are an excellent source of identifying risks and hazards and should be encouraged to speak up when they identify any.

‘Their active input is key to the development of an effective safety management system.

‘All need to be fully aware of safety procedures and understand the dangers of not following them.’

The firm admitted failing to ensure as far as reasonably practicable the health and safety and work of others on board the ship.

Paul Robinson, director of marine services for Serco said: ‘Serco fully accepts the decision of the court.

‘We have worked closely with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency throughout and cooperated fully with them.

‘The health and safety of our employees and customers is our top priority and a responsibility we take very seriously.

‘Our aim is to ensure that this type of incident cannot happen again and therefore we have made a number of operational improvements and updated our training to ensure that our people follow correct procedures.’