SINGAPORE — An industrial gas supply firm in Jurong and its chief executive officer implicated in an explosion that killed a chemist were sentenced to fines on Tuesday (26 January).
Leeden National Oxygen was fined $340,000 while its CEO Steven Tham Weng Cheong, 69, was fined $45,000 over the blast in 2015.
Both parties had failed to take necessary measures to ensure workplace safety, resulting in a blast that killed laboratory chemist Lim Siaw Chian, a 30-year-old Singaporean, and injured two others. The ensuing fire injured seven other employees of Leeden National Oxygen, who suffered from abrasions, eye globe rupture, lacerations and brain haemorrhage.
An explosion ripped through Leeden’s Specialty Gas Centre Quality Control Laboratory at 21 Tanjong Kling Road on 12 October 2015 in the morning.
Just before the blast, Lim, a new mother, was carrying out gas analysis on a cylinder, which contained a combustible mix of methane, nitrogen and oxygen.
CCTV footage shows she was last seen touching a regulatory valve assembly connected to the cylinder before it went blank.
The primary failure was determined to be at an unqualified weld joint found in the bullet stem of the regulatory valve assembly, which was attached to the cylinder valve of the exploded gas cylinder.
The regulatory valve assembly had been modified with an unqualified welded joint which failed, resulting in a leak of the flammable methane-oxygen-nitrogen mix from the regulatory valve assembly during the testing of the cylinder.
“The leaking gas mixture was most likely ignited by the frictional heat generated due to the escaping gas mixture and/or internal sudden agitation of debris and particulate, which flashed back into the cylinder. The rapid overpressure resulted in the explosion of the cylinder, which killed the deceased and injured her colleagues,” earlier court documents from the Ministry of Manpower read.
After the explosion, Leeden’s Emergency Response Team searched for employees while helping to fight the subsequent fire explosions.
The Singapore Civil Defence Force arrived at about 9.45am and seven employees were conveyed to the hospital.
The firm admitted to failing to take reasonable practicable measures to ensure that unsafe modified regulatory valve assemblies were not used when testing combustible gases, and to ensure that there was a system for the tracking and maintenance of the regulatory valve assemblies.
It also failed to ensure adequate risk management was conducted for lab operations, to establish adequate safe work procedures, to ensure a system in place to accurately track gas cylinders, to ensure that safety concerns were addressed, and to provide adequate support and direction to employees for their safety.
These failures caused the death of Lim, who left behind a young daughter.
Tham, who was responsible for the overall operation of Leeden, failed to review its safety procedures before the accident, and was focused on its business and finance.
There were no inquiries made into safety even before a senior executive in charge of safety had resigned on 12 August 2015, and this lapse continued after his resignation.
No clear directions or announcements were made as to who would take over the former executive’s portfolio related to safety. While another man was tasked to take over the portfolio, it was revealed that this employee did not have much involvement in safety.
Tham failed to look into the structure of Leeden’s safety committee, and did not ensure that it had a robust system for its procurement processes in order to trace manufacturers or suppliers of regulatory valve assemblies and other laboratory components used.
District Judge Adam Nakhoda noted the number of failures and high potential for harm while delivering the sentence on Tuesday. He commented that the lack of safe work procedures for gas analysis process and the lack of periodic maintenance of the regulatory valve assembly were systemic failures.
The actual harm caused was extensive, due to the death of a person and injuries to nine others, the judge said.
That said, DJ Nakhoda also considered the firm’s otherwise clean safety record and the improvements it has since implemented, as well as its plea of guilt, as mitigating factors.
Meanwhile, Gary Choo Pu Chang, a former director at Leeden National Oxygen, faces a charge under the Workplace Safety and Health Act.
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