CHIPBOARD factory Sonae was today named as Merseyside’s biggest “safety sinner” over the past 12 months.
It comes as management opened their doors to the ECHO to try and quell the growing clamour for the Kirkby plant to be closed.
Chief executive Nigel Graham gave us his first interview and tour since the Moss Lane site opened 12 years ago.
The Irishman admitted Sonae’s safety record needed overhauling, but refused to concede it had fallen short in recent times.
Currently, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are probing three incidents at the site, including three deaths and a devastating blaze last summer which caused £30m damage and left the factory non-operational for half a year.
The HSE confirmed they have spent more time dealing with Sonae than any other Merseyside firm in the past year.
Today, the first part of an ECHO investigation reveals:
One current Sonae employee lifting the lid on the “danger” in his workplace which he says still exists;
A secret email from MP George Howarth in which he describes the factory as “unstable, unsafe and badly managed”;
Sonae’s plans to build three large silos to prevent blowing dust, which the community complains smothers their homes;
the first pictures taken by media showing activity inside the Kirkby site, which has long remained shrouded in mystery.
Mr Graham told the ECHO: “Clearly, we have got to look at our recent record and improve going forward, and learn from any issues and the whole basis of safety is identify thee risks and review what put in place.”
Sonae is under investigation by Knowsley council chiefs who are considering whether to withdraw the firm’s environmental permit.
A concerted campaign is under way from residents and politicians demanding action against the company where 22 major incidents have taken place over the last decade.
George Howarth also launched a broadside at the HSE, accusing them of being “slow and ineffective” in their dealings with Sonae.
In his email, the Labour MP declared: “There is strong and irrefutable evidence of odour nuisance, dust and poor safety which, in my view, should be sufficient to close the plant.”
Chief executive Mr Graham, however, is furious with recent comments made by Mr Howarth in Parliament, and has written to the MP and employment minister Chris Grayling.
The Sonae boss said: “We will be responding to present a balanced picture. What is very disappointing in relation to the note is the lack of objectivity and the inaccuracies in terms of what he was saying.”
Pressure has ratcheted up on Sonae since another fire broke out last month, just six months after the plant reopened following June’s blaze.
More than 10 tonnes of sawdust held in a vast silo went up in flames last month, sending plumes of black smoke over Kirkby – yet again.
To add to those infernos, HSE bosses are still deciding how to respond after the deaths of contract workers Thomas Elmer, 27, and James Bibby, 25, who were dragged into machinery 14 months ago.
The ECHO has now also learned that a staff member at the 225-worker plant WAS injured in the fire at the end of January.
A fitter, in his late 40s, was hurt when he walked past a silo at the exact time of the blast. He remains off work after suffering stun and shock symptoms, including his vision temporarily being affected.
Helen Moss, who is the leader of Say No To Sonae, who lives half a mile from the site, said: “It’s time to take firm and decisive action against this company.
“The safety record is quite simply appalling.
“At what stage are the council or HSE going to decide to intervene?
“Does it take more deaths, or more injuries, before the powers-that-be truly start taking responsibility?”
In tomorrow’s ECHO: The multi-million silos Sonae hopes will help it keep its licence.
SONAE chief executive Nigel Graham said: “We are very concerned about any incident, any incident is something we’ve got to investigate.
“Every incident we have we look at thoroughly, we don’t jump to conclusions, we look for root causes and look to see if we can improve those precautions.
“We are very focused on achieving a safe working environment. But its remiss of me to say we don’t have associated risks.
“There is large equipment on site.
‘‘We have moving machines, and there’s a lot of machines that needs to be managed.
“We need to create a process of safety awareness and that is something which never finishes.
“We haven’t got an unblemished record. Any incidents is one incident too many.”
“Clearly, we have got to look at our recent record and improve going forward, and learn from any issues.
“When look at our figures, we had HSE audit report October 2007, and they acknowledged there’d been significant improvement.
“There was also an eight year gap in terms of no informal enforcement action between 2002-2010.”
Asked about the worker describing his workplace as ‘dangerous’, Mr Graham said: “There are disgruntled employees in every company.
“The biggest disappointment this individual feels he can’t come forward and make suggestions about how we can improve the situation.”
“Close us down!” says plant fitter
A FITTER working at Sonae today described his workplace as “dangerous”, and declared: “Close us down!”
It is the first occasion a full-time and long-standing employee has detailed insider claims of the alleged failings at the plant.
The employee, who works as an operator with close to a decade’s experience at the factory, called on the company to be exposed.
And the Merseyside man, who does not wish to be identified, said Sonae remained “unsafe”.
The worker detailed colleagues clambering on silos while still “live” and “old, rusty and falling apart” machinery.’
The employee said: “Things are very bad.
“Everyone’s so cautious and scared to walk past silos now, in case they go up.
“In terms of health and safety, there’s been no improvement. It’s badly maintained and dangerous.
“It needs to be closed down. Knock it down and start again.”