Firm at centre of Legionella outbreak accused of "woeful and flagrant disregard" for health and safety

The Faltec factory at West Boldon
The Faltec factory at West Boldon

A company with a "woeful and flagrant disregard" for health and safety regulations left a number of employees in induced comas after a outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease and an explosion, a court has heard.

Car parts manufacturer Faltec Europe Ltd have admitted a string of health and safety breaches following an outbreak of the deadly lung disease at their factory in West Boldon, between October 2014 and May 2015.

Newcastle Crown Court heard how two members of staff, two agency workers and one nearby resident were left extremely ill, and in some cases lost a lot of hair following the outbreak.

Whilst investigations surrounding the Legionnaires case were ongoing, a 19-year-old employee was left with first degree burns and placed in a coma after a machine exploded next to him.

The court heard that, in 2006 - when the company was known as Hashimoto - a worker died after flammable chemicals spilled on his work clothes.

Seven years later, in 2013, the company was forced to pay £20,000 to another worker after he was blinded in one eye when a hose filled with compressed air smashed into his face.

In relation to the recent offences, prosecutor Ben Mills told the court: "There were five cases reported to Public Health England of people who had contracted Legionnaires Disease.

"It can be fatal. It is like a form of pneumonia and you contract it by inhaling small droplets of water. The bacteria begins to infect the lungs. People were put into induced comas and lost a lot of their hair."

Mr Mills explained how just one month after the factory was given the all clear in September 2015, the explosion took place, leaving the employee, who had only worked there for eight months, hospitalised.

He added: "The incident occurred over the period of when they were being investigated in a serious outbreak of Legionella.

"The failure reflects a systematic failure in their system of work and training. They did not even carry out a Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmosphere Regulations (DSEAR) risk assessment until 2015.

"There was no proper training. The 19-year-old employee had seen a part had fallen off of a roller on the flocking machine.

"He lifted up the perspex guard and used both hands to remove the part.

"The machine was still on. It had not cut the power. The atmosphere was flammable. He bent down and, as he did so, must have touched the live electrostatic grid. That caused a spark which ignited.

"It came at him as a ball of fire. He was taken by ambulance to hospital and was put in an induced coma. He suffered first degree burns to his face.

"He was off work for two weeks because of the physical injury but had six months off with stress and depression and has since left the company."

In March this year, defence barrister David Hercock entered guilty pleas on behalf of the company to two charges under Sections 3 and 33 of the Health and Safety Work Act and one charge of failing to ensure health and safety in relation to risks of fire and explosion.

Prosecutors claim that the company had a "woeful and flagrant disregard" for health and safety regulations, and did not provide thorough training for employees - but the defence say this is not the case.

Before sentencing, Recorder James Wood QC said he is trying to establish whether or not the failures were systematic or isolated incidents.

Mr Hercock, for Faltec, said: "The company is the largest employer in South Tyneside. It expresses deep regret that its employees sustained injury.

"It has taken and is continuing to take steps to improve its procedures. We accept that there were deficiencies but concerted steps were being made to address these.

"The man suffered first degree burns and I don't want to make light of that but it is the lowest degree of burn.

"This is not an organisation that just brought people in and didn't train them before giving them a task. Employees talk about being shadowed and coached by senior experienced operatives.

"Steps were being taken to try and modify the machine and modify the problem. It is not as though nothing was being done."

He told the court the company, which has 573 employees and a turnover of £39m, spent over £2m on health and safety in just 14 months.

The company are due to be sentenced next week.