The UK’s health and safety watchdog has accepted it did not inspect the management of silica sand at Cuadrilla’s fracking site near Blackpool.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was replying to questions from MPs about the way it monitored risks from silica sand – used as a proppant – at the Preston New Road site.
In a letter to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, the HSE’s chief executive, Sarah Albon, said respirable crystalline silica (RCS) was unlikely to be a major accident hazard.
She said the HSE had not inspected the RCS risk at Preston New Road in July 2019 because the site visit had focused on major accident hazards:
“This is in line with the Onshore Oil and Gas Sector Strategy, which sets out how HSE will use its finite resources in a major accident hazard environment, given that HSE cannot be present at all major accident hazard sites when operational activities are undertaken.”
Fracking was suspended at Preston New Road in August 2019 after the process induced a 2.9ML earthquake. A moratorium on all fracking in England was imposed in November 2019 and is still in force.
But Ms Albon said:
“if HF [hydraulic fracturing] recommences at the [Preston New Road] site, it [the HSE] will enable a full review to be undertaken of the RCS control measures against requirements of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations.
“This will provide clear evidence upon which inspectors can base any enforcement decisions required.”
The Work and Pensions Committee put a series questions to Mr Albon following an 18-month investigation, which reported shortcomings in the regulation of the Preston New Road site.
She confirmed that Cuadrilla had received a verbal warning about the use of respiratory protective equipment (RPE):
“HSE identified a failure to ensure that the operatives undertaking the work had been face-fit tested for the RPE being used.”
But she said:
“in view of the short duration of the work undertaken (and the engineering controls in place), the time since the work had been undertaken and the fact that there was no prospect that sand handling work will recommence in the foreseeable future, the inspector concluded that verbal advice on the matter to the duty holder would be a proportionate response.”
The investigation, by Dr Barbara Kneale, a consultant in occupational medicine, and Dennis May, an industrial health and safety practitioner, also revealed that the HSE carried out no site inspections during fracking at Preston New Road, despite a previous commitment to do so.
In her letter, Ms Albon agreed the HSE had not visited Preston New Road during fracking operations in 2018 and 2019.
Dr Kneale and Mr May said today:
“There is nothing new to us contained in Ms Albon’s response to the Department of Work and Pensions Committee; much of it repeats verbatim the HSE’s responses to our enquiries, thereby confirming the veracity of our report.
“We now await the Committee’s response to the Executive’s admission that it failed to meet its own stated expectations, contrary to assurances given to the Mineral Planning Authority, the people of Lancashire and the public at large.”