Man Dies After 90% of his Body is Burnt by Steam

Chipboard manufacturer Norbord Europe Limited has been fined £2.15m after a four-week trial held at Perth Sheriff Court in Scotland found that a series of failings at its Cowie site in Stirlingshire had led to an employee’s death. Sixty-four-year-old George Laird sustained severe burns to 90% of his body after being ‘enveloped’ in hot water, steam and ash and died in hospital the next day from his injuries.

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigators and found that Norbord managers had asked George and three colleagues to undertake maintenance work on a wood drier at the chipboard manufacturer’s Cowie, Stirlingshire site when the tragic incident happened.

As the employees were carrying out the required task – the removal of hot ash from inside a hot gas duct located above a combustion chamber – a high-pressure firehose was employed to shoot 7,500 litres of cold water into the chamber.

Sheriff William Wood who told the court that Norbord bore a ‘high level of culpability’ for its failings, described the decision to use the hose as “catastrophic”. George, who was standing below the combustion chamber at the time, was scalded by hot water, steam and ash as a result.

‘The waste coming down the chute was described as being like lava because of the quantity of it,’ Sheriff Wood said.

‘Water was able to heat, expand and ultimately explode out of the chute and into the room below, where George was working, with tragic consequences.

‘George died because there were no adequate safeguards in place. He died because there was no adequate risk assessment on the day.’

Scotland’s Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) said the HSE’s investigation had revealed that some of Laird’s colleagues had narrowly avoided serious injury from falling hot ash when several near-misses had happened on different occasions after the combustion chamber’s installation on 1 October 2014.

Perth Sheriff Court was told that the employees were left to devise their own work methods. Because they had not been provided with the necessary information, instruction and training to undertake his hazardous work, employees were put at risk of personal injury.

The HSE determined that Norbord Europe had failed to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks involved in managing hot substances and had failed to provide a safe system of work.

Norbord Europe was found guilty of two health and safety charges on 1 November 2022 at Perth Sheriff’s Court.

The company had failed to ensure a safe system of work for employees who were inspecting or removing hot ash from the area below the combustion chamber by allowing them to devise their own work methods. It was also found guilty of failing to complete a suitable and sufficient risk assessment to cover the health and safety of workers on site.

According to the newspaper, Norbord Europe’s £2,125,000 fine is a Scottish record for a case that involves the death of a single individual.

Speaking after the jury had brought a unanimous guilty verdict, HSE inspector Garry Miller said: ‘Those in control of work have a responsibility to set up safe methods of working and to provide the necessary information, instruction and training to their workers to carry out the safe methods of working.

‘If a suitable safe system of work had been in place prior to the incident, the death of Mr Laird could have been prevented.’

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Steve Kilburn
Steve Kilburn
I initially trained as an industrial chemist working in a variety of manufacturing environments eventually moving into quality management which grew to encompass environmental and occupational health and safety management systems. I hold a Masters Degree in Health and Safety law and Environmental Law and a Post Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Waste Management and I am a Graduate Level Member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). In my spare time I enjoy reading, my favourite author is Stephen King, and listening to music, generally from the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
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