A HUDDERSFIELD recycling firm and one of its directors have been fined a total of £145,000 after workers and office staff were exposed to high levels of potentially poisonous mercury.
The owners of Electrical Waste Recycling Group, in Kirkheaton, had spent almost $1 million installing new processing equipment to cope with increased quantities of material such as fluorescent lighting tubes, televisions and computers.
But for 10 months unsuspecting employees at their School Lane site were exposed to excessive levels of mercury in the air because the machinery had not been fitted with the necessary carbon filters.
Bradford Crown Court heard yesterday how mercury vapour was released when the lighting tubes were crushed and because the filters were not fitted the contaminated air was itself recycled and pumped back into the premises.
One of the ducts pumped contaminated air directly into the office area.
Although there was no proven link to any illnesses caused by the mercury contamination the court heard that a pregnant member of staff had been found to have high levels of the chemical in her urine.
But prosecutor Alexs Offer confirmed that monitoring of her condition had revealed no symptoms for either her or her baby son.
Although the company’s own daily tests identified high levels of mercury at the premises the closure of an oven used to dispose of the chemical failed to solve the problem and by August 2008 the Health and Safety Executive issued a prohibition and improvement notices against the company.
Mr Offer said prior to the prohibition notice HSE staff had tested the urine of 35 employees at the premises and found 20 had higher than recommended levels of mercury.
Director Craig Thompson, 35, of Woodlea Avenue, Huddersfield, together with EWRG, which previously operated as Matrix Direct Recycling Ltd, admitted last year failing to ensure the health and safety of workers.
The companies also pleaded guilty to various breaches of Health and Safety Regulations regarding risk assessments and working with substances such mercury and lead.
Judge James Stewart QC fined the companies a total of £140,000 and also ordered costs amounting to an extra £35,126.98.
Thompson, who was said to have financial difficulties including debts of £80,000, was fined a total of £5,000, but the judge decided not to disqualify him from being a director.
The court heard that the firm was now involved in litigation with the American suppliers of the processing equipment over the missing carbon filters which would have stopped any mercury emissions.
Although there had been repeated warnings about the mercury problem Judge Stewart rejected any suggestion that Thompson, who was himself contaminated by mercury to a high level, had been involved in a deliberate and sinister suppression of test results
Thompson’s barrister Paul Greaney stressed that it was not a case where his client had profited by his failure to carry out health and safety requirements and it had not been a case of “corner cutting”.
He conceded that Thompson was inexperienced in dealing with hazardous waste and found himself “out of his depth”.
It was also alleged that due to his increased workload Thompson had delegated some responsibilities to another member of staff who had failed to discharged them properly.
Barrister Robert Smith QC, for the companies, said since the prohibition notice was served the firm had spent £350,000 installing an effective emission filter system and a further £281,000-a-year was being spent on additional managers and supervisors.
He revealed that tests on staff last month showed all were under the recommended levels.
Judge Stewart said it was a matter of luck that no-one had suffered serious injury over the 10-month period, but he added that it was not a case of profiting or cost-cutting.
“This was not an isolated breach. It continued for 10 months albeit there are explanations as to why matters were not remedied earlier,” said the judge.
“There was a failure to heed warnings over a period of months. Steps have been taken to remedy the deficiencies and the company now operates as an example in this area of waste treatment.”
After the hearing, Health and Safety Executive inspector Jeanne Morton said: “This is a shocking case involving a large number of employees, many of them young and vulnerable, who were suddenly faced with the worrying possibility of damage to their long-term health.
“The risks associated with handling toxic substances like mercury have been known for generations, so it is all the more unacceptable that something like this has happened.
“The company failed to see the risks created by their recycling work and failed to develop effective plans for safe working. They also did nothing to check their workers’ health after exposure.
“Workers have a right to expect a reasonable level of protection in the workplace, and employers have a legal duty to provide it.”