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Explosives Legislation Review

Andy Miller, Head of the HSE Explosives Policy Team, outlines the current review of explosives legislation and the proposals for revised separation distances around explosives sites

The Explosives Act (‘the Act’) framework has lasted well and the intention is to retain the fundamental features of the existing framework, including the licensing and registration systems. Over time, however, the Act has become overlaid by a raft of Orders-in-Council and other secondary legislation. As many readers will know from experience, it can be very difficult, even for those familiar with the legislation, to work out the legal requirements which apply in particular situations. For example, in the case of fireworks, to find out what quantity can be kept without a licence involves consulting four separate Orders-in-Council. This complexity gives rise to unnecessary additional costs, as well as to the potential for inconsistent regulation. A major objective of the current review, therefore, is to simplify and clarify the law and reduce the volume of legislation. The proposed regulations would lead to the revocation of most of the Explosives Act together with 41 items of secondary legislation.

An attempt has been made to update the law to take account of changes in technology. While the basic principles — storing bulk explosives away from manufactur-ing and other activities, excluding sources of ignition, limiting the number of people in explosives areas etc — remain as valid today as they were in 1875, there are now new sources of initiation to consider, such as electricity.

At the core of the new regulations will be a duty to take appropriate measures to prevent fire and explosions, to limit the extent of a fire or explosion and to protect people in the event of a fire or explosion.

The regulation is very short but it is supported by an extensive Approved Code of Practice and guidance. In writing the guidance, an attempt has been made to bring together all of the existing guidance on good practice and to publish it in one place. The intention is that anyone wanting to know what they have to do to comply with the law will be able to find the information they need in one place and written in a clear and accessible way. This is an ambitious aim given the range of people covered by the regulations and writing the guidance has not been easy; it is hoped that readers will make suggestions as to where it could be improved.

A lot of small changes have been made where people felt that the law could be made to work better — for example, there is a proposal to clarify the responsibilities of the local authority when it is asked to give assent to a licence.

There are two sets of changes which may be of particular interest to the quarrying industry. First, there is a proposal to eliminate the need for the licensing of on-site mixing. The regulations will, however, still apply to the mixing of ANFO and the Approved Code of Practice will give guidance on safety issues connected with mixing as well as storage of ammonium nitrate and other ingredients.

Secondly, there is a proposal to streamline enforcement responsibilities. As readers will know, at mines and quarries the HSE is responsible for enforcing duties regarding the transport and use of explosives, the local authority for storage, and the police for security. This is regarded as being too many sets of enforcers. It is proposed, therefore, that local authorities should concentrate on regulating the storage of fireworks and that the police should become the licensing authorities for quarries and take over responsibility for the enforcement of both the safety and security of explosives storage. This set-up has worked well in Derbyshire and some other areas.

SEPARATION DISTANCES (Qds)

The review of explosives legislation has included a review of the requirements for separation distances around explosive stores (the so called ‘quantity-distance tables’). Although there has not been an off-site fatality as a result of an explosion at an explosives site for more than 50 years, tests by the Ministry of Defence have suggested that the current separation distances for smaller stores holding high explosives may not provide sufficient protection against flying debris.

A report on this work is available on the HSE website at: www.hse.gov.uk

The proposals

In developing its recommendations, the quantity-distance working group has sought to ensure that the requirements on the explosives industry are consistent with those imposed on comparable high-hazard industries. An attempt has been made to avoid imposing excessive requirements on the industry while bearing in mind that the HSE’s first duty is to ensure the safety of the public.

There are a number of points to make about the new tables, the first of which is that, as far as the HSE is aware, the quarrying industry will be largely unaffected by the changes. Other points to note are that:

  • the new tables will distinguish between steel stores and those built of brick and concrete, which in certain circumstances represent a greater hazard
  • the tables will also take account of safety measures such as mounding and the removal of the detonator annex
  • it is proposed that the tables should take account of housing density. At present the same requirements apply whether the store is near to an isolated farmhouse or a high-density housing estate
  • it is also proposed that the public traffic route distances should take account of traffic volumes. At present the same requirements apply whether the store is near a busy motorway or an occasionally-used footpath. It is proposed that where the store is near to a motorway or other very busy road, the full separation distance should apply, while in other cases a reduced distance would apply or even, where the path is only occasionally used, that the requirement should be removed altogether.

Table 1 gives the distances which would apply to a steel store with the annex removed. Given the limited space available, it is not possible to reproduce all of the proposed tables here, but copies of these can be provided on request.

Table 2 gives a summary of the impact for different types of store — nb, for ease of presentation, the implications for stores in high population density areas are not discussed, as HSE research suggests that there are very few of these.

It is hoped that these tables are not too indigestible. An attempt has been made to strike a balance between not giving too much information and not glossing over the areas where there will be increases in the separation distance requirements.

A general summary of this is that:

  • The quarrying industry should be largely unaffected because, so far as the HSE is aware, it uses steel stores in remote areas holding more than 450kg of explosives.
  • The distance requirements will increase for smaller stores, especially brick (or brick and concrete) stores and those in areas of high population density.
  • The distance requirements will remain unchanged for steel stores holding more than 450kg (ie for the majority of stores).
  • More steps have been included in the tables to mitigate the impact of the increases. For example, someone wishing to keep 200kg of explosive will no longer have to maintain the separation distance which would apply to 400kg.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

The Health and Safety Commission published a consultation document in 2003. The proposals are currently being revised to take account of the comments received and it is hoped that the new regulations will be laid before Parliament later this year, with a view to bringing them into force early next year.

For copies of the Q-D tables or further information contact Cherone Ashdown on tel:
(020) 7717 6262; fax: (020) 7717 6690.

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