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SGN and Cliffe Contractors Ltd fined more than £1.2m after Whitstable gas fire left worker with PTSD

By Anna MacSwan

Gas company SGN has been fined £1.2 million after an employee was engulfed by a fireball when a ruptured main burst into sky-high flames.

Gary Norris, 51, suffered serious burns while repairing a pipe damaged during construction works to build new shops at Estuary View Retail Park in Whitstable.

The utilities operator was called at 11.08am that day to a methane leak caused during excavations by Cliffe Contractors Ltd, which has also been fined £60,000 for health and safety breaches.

Folkestone Magistrate’s Court heard on Tuesday how months after the ordeal, Mr Norris was still experiencing distressing flashbacks of being on fire and could recall the smell of his flesh burning and thinking he was going to die.

In a victim impact statement, he said: “The incident has had a huge impact on me and my family. I have lost confidence and I have high anxiety levels.

“Even now, I feel vulnerable and nervous, and my personality has been affected.”

Mr Norris, who had to be treated for burns to his head, face, arms, legs and buttocks, has since been diagnosed with severe depression and PTSD.

A second SGN employee, Adrian Hennigan, also suffered cuts and bruises when the pipe burst into flames on the evening of May 27, 2016.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive found SGN did not adequately follow safety measures during the repairs, leading to the hefty fine and an order from District Judge Justin Barron to pay £18,975 in costs.

The huge fire as it raged at Estuary View, Whitstable. Picture: Chris Rowden.
The huge fire as it raged at Estuary View, Whitstable. Picture: Chris Rowden.

The court heard how Mr Norris had not been wearing adequate protective clothing, and a digger and sandbags had been positioned at the source of the leak to stem the gas flow.

Prosecution lawyer Deanna Heer said: “Mr Norris was working two metres from the source of the gas leak when the gas ignited and set it alight.

“That was too close and it allowed little room for error should there have been a change, as there was, in conditions.”

The fire, which raged for hours while more than a dozen emergency crews worked to bring it until control, was eventually extinguished at about 2.45am.

The cause of ignition remains unknown.

The burnt out scene after the fire
The burnt out scene after the fire

The HSE also said Rochester-based Cliffe Contractors, which was ordered to pay costs of £12,689, had not followed safe digging techniques around the polyethylene pipe.

Both companies pleaded guilty to breaches of the Health and Safety Act.

Folkestone Magistrates Court
Folkestone Magistrates Court

Hundreds of homes in Whitstable were also left without gas as a result of the blaze, which happened between the Long Reach and Estuary View roundabouts.

HSE’s principal specialist inspector Martin Wayland said: “This incident, in which a worker could have easily been killed, could have been avoided if safe excavation by Cliffe Contractors had been carried out and safe mains repair policies had been followed by SGN.

“Both companies were aware of the precautions that were required to be taken.”

SGN spokesman Denis Kerby said the firm “deeply regrets” the incident and offered its apologies to the victims and their families.

“Throughout the subsequent HSE investigation into this incident, we have fully co-operated with the HSE as well as with the court proceedings and at the first opportunity pleaded guilty to the charge,” he added.

“While we fully accept the penalty imposed by the District Judge, we welcome his comments recognising that we have a good record with a demonstrable commitment to health and safety and have taken considerable actions to address the issues identified in the proceedings.”

Cliffe Contractors declined to comment on the case.

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