Teesside recycling firm slapped with £160,000 fine after workers exposed to wood dust

A wood waste recycling centre has been slapped with a £160,000 fine after exposing workers to excessive dust.

Esken Renewables Limited, a waste and recycling company that specialises in generating biofuel from renewable waste, ran a wood waste recycling centre in Port Clarence that processed mixed wood waste, hardwood and softwood into biofuel. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector visited the site in April 2022 to investigate the dust exposures on the site.

A few weeks earlier, concerns had been raised about wood dust spreading to the surrounding area. The inspector wrote in detail to Esken Renewables with evidence demonstrating the extent of the wood dust exposure to staff, so that the right action could be taken by the company to control the risks.

The company provided a detailed response, and it was accepted that exposures to the surrounding area was in large part due to four storms in quick succession. However, the HSE investigation found that the control of wood dust to protect employees working on and around the site was not adequate and fell short of the expected benchmark.

The company failed to design and operate processes and activities to minimise emission, release and spread of wood dust. One solution would be through the use of local exhaust ventilation, the enclosure of machinery or the designing of the processes such as using vacuum systems as opposed to compressed air for cleaning and maintenance.

Guidance on working in the woodworking industry is available and an inspection-led campaign to protect workers continues. Esken Renewables Limited, who operated the site at Port Clarence Road, Port Clarence, pleaded guilty of breaching Regulation 7(1) of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 and was fined £160,000 and ordered to pay £5,310.35 in costs at Teesside Magistrates’ Court on May 23.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Matthew Dundas said: “The expected standard is to control exposure to as low a level as is reasonably practicable. We hope this serves to raise industry awareness for the expectation of control of hazardous substances, namely wood dust, in the wood waste and recycling industry.”

Breathing in wood dust excessively can cause asthma and nasal cancer. In particular, dust from softwood wood dust is a known asthmagen while particles from hardwood are a known carcinogen. This prosecution was brought by HSE enforcement lawyer Iain Jordan and supported by HSE paralegal officer Rebecca Forman.

A spokesperson for Esken Renewables said: "We take health and safety very seriously and the wellbeing of all of our employees is a top priority for us. We were 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.

"We accept the HSE’s findings, and we’ve cooperated 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."