Ruptured gas pipe causes public evacuation


Private sector clients and principal contractors are often brought before the courts by the HSE for their failures to abide by construction health and safety regulations. It is less common to see, as in this case, a public sector body (Fife Council) failing to meet the basic safety requirements when instructing its own employees to carry out dangerous infrastructure works. The result was serious, involving a mass public evacuation.

At Fife Council’s Milesmark Depot in Carnock Road, Dunfermline, on 11th June 2010, council workers were digging a new trench as part of a drainage works project.

The key issues were:

  • They were not working under any supervision
  • They were not told that on the previous day it had been decided not to dig in that area
  • Whinstone dust was uncovered – a marker for water or gas pipework in the ground

Unsupervised workers had no guidance

Nevertheless, despite the potential warning from the dust, they carried on regardless, digging with a mechanical digger and a power tool, and in so doing they hit and punctured a gas valve on a pressure main 6” in diameter.

The workers stopped immediately, cleared the area and reported what had happened. The emergency services and Scottish Gas Networks attended; they evacuated a primary school and all 100 private and business properties in the area. The occupants were kept away for 5 hours while Scottish Gas repaired the valve. Some 4 tonnes of gas had escaped in the incident.

The HSE inspectors who investigated found that:

  1. there had been no proper risk assessment, including the possible risk to the public
  2. plans of public utilities underground were not studied beforehand
  3. no sensing devices or hand tools had been used to detect where services actually were
  4. overall there was no safe system of work in place
  5. workers should have been supervised, informed and properly instructed

Council prosecuted

In Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (and not the HSE) takes action in criminal proceedings for health and safety issues.  Therefore this Service led in the prosecution of Fife Council at Dunfermline Sheriff Court, where the Council was fined £24,000 due to breaches of Sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

It was lucky for the public, the workers and the Council that no-one was hurt and that property was not damaged by an explosion.

That, however, to quote the Inspector, “is down more to luck than judgement.

Information about the dangers involved in working near underground pipes and cables can be found on the HSE website.

For any guidance on the management of underground works as part of risk assessment and the creation of method statements, or for any practical, expert site guidance, call McCormack Benson Health & Safety, the specialist building safety consultants.