A hundred homes and businesses, as well as a primary school, had to be evacuated following the incident at the council’s Milesmark Depot in Carnock Road, Dunfermline, on 11 June 2010.
Dunfermline Sheriff Court heard yesterday that although there were no casualties as a result of the incident, it was a potentially fatal incident. Members of the public, as well as council employees, could have been killed.
The court was told that drainage works were being carried out at the depot by the council’s own employees. On the day of the incident the employees, who were not supervised, decided to excavate a new trench unaware a decision had been taken the day before not to dig in that particular area.
During the excavation, using a hand-held power tool and mechanical digger, they exposed and disturbed whinstone dust, which is an indicator of the presence of gas or water pipes. In spite of this, they continued the excavation and the digger struck and ruptured a gas valve on a six-inch pressure main.
They immediately evacuated the area and reported the incident. The emergency services and Scottish Gas Networks were called to the scene and all properties in the area evacuated for five hours while the damage was repaired.
An investigation by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) revealed various failings by the council including:
- failure to assess the risks to members of the public near the depot;
- failure to provide and maintain a safe system of work for the excavation, which included failing to refer to utility plans showing the location of underground services and failing to use devices or hand tools to locate underground services;
- failure to provide the necessary information, instruction and supervision to the excavation works to ensure the health and safety of nearby members of the public.
Fife Council, of Fife House, North Street, Glenrothes, was fined £24,000 after pleading guilty to breaching Sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.
HSE inspector Mac Young said after the hearing: “This incident was both entirely foreseeable and easily preventable. Fife Council’s failures all related to inadequate risk assessment, lack of safe systems of work and a breakdown principally of the supervision of those employees involved.
“The risks attached to excavation works are well known and documented. Guidance states that hand held power tools and mechanical excavators are the main causes of danger and should not be used close to underground services.
“Thankfully, no-one was injured, nor was there any damage to property. That, however, is down more to luck than judgement.”