Biomass fuel supplier fined for exposing workers to carcinogenic wood dust

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A recycling company that specialises in supplying biomass fuel derived from waste wood has been fined £160,000 for endangering the long-term health of its workers by exposing them to excessive wood dust.

Esken Renewables, which runs a wood waste recycling centre in Middlesbrough, did not have adequate control measures in place to protect staff working on and around the site from exposure to the dust generated by its activities, an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found.

Excessive exposure to wood dust can cause asthma and nasal cancer.

Esken Renewables "failed to design and operate processes and activities to minimise emission, release and spread of wood dust". Photograph: HSE 

HSE sent an inspector to the site in the Port Clarence area of Middlesbrough in April 2022, following concerns raised about wood dust spreading to the surrounding region.

The regulator accepted Esken Renewables’ assertion that exposures to the surrounding area were largely due to four storms, which had hit the region in quick succession. However, its investigation found that the control of wood dust to protect workers at the site “was not adequate and fell short of the expected benchmark”.

The company had “failed to design and operate processes and activities to minimise emission, release and spread of wood dust”, said HSE. Better ventilation, the enclosure of machinery and the use of vacuum systems to clean equipment, instead of compressed air, are measures that would help minimise workers’ exposure to wood dust.

As part of an ongoing campaign to protect woodworkers from excessive exposure to dust, HSE is carrying out inspections at a number of woodworking businesses throughout 2024. The regulator said it carried out 1,000 such inspections in 2022/23 and found that 78 per cent of businesses failed to adequately protect workers from exposure to wood dust.

Esken Renewables pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 7(1) of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHHJ) Regulations 2002 at Teesside Magistrates’ Court on 23 May. It was fined £160,000 and ordered to pay £5,310 in costs.

Esken Renewables is now under new ownership, having been acquired late last year by Pioneer Balmoral UK.

A spokesperson for the company said it was “very disappointed to learn that on this occasion, we didn’t meet the regulatory requirements and our own high standards of care and protection that we aim to provide for our employees”.

The spokesperson added: “We accept the HSE’s findings, and we’ve co-operated with them at every stage of their investigation. We’re constantly revising our policies and procedures to ensure that we comply with all regulations and that we provide the highest standards of protection for everyone who works for us. In particular, health and safety is a core principle of the company’s new owner.”