Understanding the cost of investing in emergency response vs the cost of an incident

Understanding the cost of investing in emergency response vs the cost of an incident
28 November 2022

Organisations transporting dangerous goods are continually exposed to the risk of an incident, a risk which we know from experience can cost thousands of euros, not just in remediation and clean-up, but in fines, legal fees, and reputational damage. This is compounded when the emergency response arrangements are not fit for purpose and poor advice is given to those at the scene.

This case study outlines the real-world financial impact of a poorly managed incident during the transportation of dangerous goods and explores how this cost to the transporter could be mitigated.

Case study of a high-cost incident

This case study has been provided by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK, the government agency that prosecuted both the carrier and the consignor because of this incident. The HSE is the regulator for workplaces in Great Britain (GB, excluding Northern Ireland) and, alongside the police and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), they are responsible for the regulation of the road transport of dangerous goods.
Although this is a UK incident with UK enforcement, incidents of a similar nature will result in comparative enforcement actions globally.

Poorly handled emergency response

A driver for a third-party carrier picked up a trailer, which had been pre-loaded at the consignor site in the UK, and being delivered to the end customer in Belgium. The trailer contained a mixed load, which included seven pallets of 20-litre plastic containers containing a 45% solution of potassium hydroxide. This is a corrosive substance which can cause severe damage to the eyes and skin, and is classified as dangerous to transport. In total, the trailer was carrying just over four tonnes of potassium hydroxide.
The driver stopped at a motorway service station before arriving at the ferry port for a driving break. It was here that the driver discovered that the load was leaking and causing discolouration of the aluminium trim on the trailer. Seeking advice, the driver called their transport supervisor to inform them that part of the load was leaking and that they were carrying hazardous and corrosive materials. The driver at this point specifically requested for emergency services to be called.

After consulting with the line manager, the transport supervisor instructed the driver to return to the nearest company depot in Sittingbourne, 12-miles from the rest stop. The driver followed the instructions, with potassium hydroxide leaking from his load throughout the entire journey.
At the depot, attempts were made to resolve the release, but the extent and scale of the incident was soon realised. It was at this point that the decision was finally made to contact the emergency services, two hours after the initial leak had been identified.

Six fire engines attended the scene to hose down the contaminated areas, which included the lorry and the transport yard. The driver and warehouse supervisor were believed to have been exposed to the corrosive material while trying to clean up the spill, so they had to be stripped off and decontaminated on site before being taken to hospital for observation, in case of any burns from the corrosive material. Emergency services also attended the rest stop to identify if any released material was still on the ground. Overall, about 85 litres of potassium hydroxide was lost, over four containers in total.

As well as the danger to the driver and those at the depot, the decisions taken had increased the risk of harm to members of the public (who may have been exposed to the released material at the rest stop or on the return journey) as well as significantly increasing the scale of the environmental impact by extending the size and spread of the release.

The enforcement agency’s investigation

HSE investigated the incident and found several immediate and root causes for the leak. The most immediate cause was that the caps on the containers had not been tightened adequately. Additionally, the containers had not been securely stacked on the pallets and the pallets had not been adequately braced on the trailer and hence had toppled over during the journey.

The HSE inspector that carried out the investigation interviewed several witnesses. It turned out that the containers had been loaded by an unsupervised contract employee who had only started working for the consignor four days before carrying out this loading operation. It was the first time that they had loaded any dangerous goods and they did not know how a load should be stowed in the trailer to ensure that it was secured during transport.

The HSE inspector decided that there were sufficient breaches by both the carrier and the consignor, and therefore started prosecution processes against both parties.

The costs

The carrier prosecution was taken under The Carriage of Dangerous Goods and Use of Transportable Pressure Equipment Regulations 2009, which is the UK’s adoption of the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road (ADR) treaty into domestic law. They were fined £20,000 (€23,000) with court costs of £3,400 (€3,900) for the following breaches:

  • Insecure load,

  • Poor emergency response,

  • Continued journey with a leaking load.

The consignor was prosecuted under the same regulations and was also fined £20,000 (€23,000) with costs of £3,400 (€3,900) for the following breaches:

  • Inadequate training,

  • Inadequate supervision,

  • Insecure load,

  • Containers not adequately closed.

In addition to these fines, there will have been numerous other costs to both the consigner and the carrier relating to lost time, clean-up operations, loss of product, repairs to the vehicle, as well as the impact on their reputation. Thankfully in this instance, there were no serious injuries or a significant adverse impact on the environment, as that would have meant the fines would have been many times larger or involved more severe punishments for those held responsible.


Ensure those who are loading trailers for transport are appropriately trained and aware of their obligations under ADR

There are legal obligations on individuals and organisations involved in the handling and transporting of dangerous goods, as outlined within ADR. Ensuring that all those involved in the loading, packing and filling stages of preparing a load, as well as the driver, have sufficient knowledge to carry out their roles safely is a key aspect of this. It is therefore critical that effective training is provided and documented. This training activity keeps your employees and other road users safe and will also be evaluated in audits that asses your organisation’s level of compliance. Ensuring that you have a capable and experienced Dangerous Goods Safety Advisor (DGSA) is a critical step in making sure that your organisation’s overall systems and policies for the transport of dangerous goods are compliant with all aspects of the regulations. 

NCEC offer a comprehensive service to organisations that need a DGSA, or to DGSAs that require additional help and support. Our team of DGSAs will guide you through the complex transport legislation and help you meet your regulatory obligations. Find out more about NCEC's DGSA service here.

Provide access to competent advice following an incident

Had the driver received different advice, then the scale of the incident, and the fines, would have been significantly reduced.  Good quality advice under these circumstances would have been to advise the driver to immediately contact the emergency services, followed by appropriate measures for the driver to take to support their safety and that of the nearby public. This is even more critical when dangerous products are moving across borders and internationally, where the local capability to respond may be less effective. Effective emergency response means ensuring that employees consistently have access to immediate, actionable and tailored advice, without this an organisation is significantly increasing the risks of their operations and the impacts it can have.

NCEC provide specialist 24/7 helplines, software and advice to help you comply with chemical safety regulations and mitigate risks to your organisation and supply chain. Find out more about NCEC's emergency response service here.

Be aware of the potential cost of an incident and the implications it could have on your organisation

Like all risk management measures, implementing better training programmes and establishing more robust emergency response arrangements have an associated cost. However, as demonstrated, the costs of a poorly managed incident can escalate significantly, particularly if an investigation reveals your organisations exposure to criminal and civil law liabilities. The need to rapidly catch up with compliance requirements in this situation can entail potentially unmanageable costs which could have been mitigated by implementing an improvement plan and spreading the cost over a longer period of time. Improvement programmes can also demonstrate your organisations commitment to your suppliers and to customer safety, which adds significant value to your supplier and customer relationships.

We understand it can be difficult to understand the potential cost of an incident to your business so we have published a white paper providing practical framework based on five critical and interlinked pillars of professional chemical safety. Read 'The cost of inaction' now.