Associated Octel Ltd. 1994 Serious Fire at Chemical Plant

The serious fire at Associated Octel Ltd has some similarities with The Flixborough
Disaster 1974
. These two disasters followed a combination of failures, questioning
why the lesson had not been learned from Flixborough.

The Incident

Associated Octel is a chemical manufacturing company with a number of sites in the
UK and abroad with great knowledge on the reaction of chemicals released into the
open environment.

In 1994 at their Ellesmere Port site, the chemical release of reactor solution of mainly
ethyl chloride, a liquefied flammable gas, mixed with hydrogen chloride and resulted
in an explosion and fire.

The plant had to be rebuilt, but fortunately there were no serious injuries or health
and environmental effects.

The Causes

A leak developed at a place between some fixed pipework and the discharge part of
the pump resulting in liquids entering the Ethyl Chloride reactor R251. This may
have occurred because of a corroded security flange coming loose on a pump or the
bellows connecting the pump to the discharge pipe failing.

The company had not identified the risk of a major release in this part of the ethyl
chloride plant, or the consequences that this may have.

The company was criticised for having poor management, ineffective safety systems
and inadequate risk assessments. If they had made a more detailed assessment of
hazards and carried out regular detailed risk assessments the fire could have been
prevented. It was stated that risk assessments should be seen as a dynamic process
and periodic reviews of the chemical plants should be carried out which should

  • Risk assessment of the existing plant from existing knowledge and assessment of the effects of any new plant,
  • Use of a risk assessment approach to make sure the most appropriate and effective techniques are being used, considering current thinking.
  • Review of the existing design and safety arrangements at the plant and any measures that could be taken to avoid or mitigate the identified risks,

The plant was re-built and recommissioned during January 1995.


Identifying and managing risks is an essential part of your Health & Safety
Programme, and these Risk Assessments should be considered dynamic, that is to
say they should be constantly reviewed and updated to reflect changes during the
operation of a site and associated work processes or routines.

This can provide a challenge for organisations who have limited competent health &
resources, but even with an adequately resourced team, it’s easy to overlook
a risk that you observe everyday – hidden in plain sight.

Assent’s Health & Safety Consultants can provide a suite of services to support your
in-house resources including access to competent health & safety advice and
impartial external auditing of your health & safety management systems.

Contact our team today to find out how we can help.

  • Photo for illustration only.
Peter Clements
Peter Clements
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