Ken’s Accident – What happened?


No one explains his experience better than Ken himself.  But you may be interested to learn some of the details that surrounded the horrific incident that completely changed his life.

In November 1990 Ken Woodward was working at a Coca Cola Schweppes factory in Sidcup, Kent (UK). He was an acting Team Leader on a line handling returnable bottles at the time of the accident.

Video taken from a television documentary featuring Ken’s fundraising work for the RNIB, flying a light aircraft around the UK

When changing product from one drink to another, the lines have to be cleaned and sterilised. A CIP clean was the process used to keep the drink production system clean.
The normal chemical they used was a proprietary cleaner called “Solchlor” a mixture of Caustic Soda and Sodium Hypochlorite (bleach). They ran out of the pre-mix soloution several weeks before, instead opting to mix their own by ordering the chemicals seperately. As the mixing machine was broken the process was carried out in open containers. Despite a couple of unreported near-misses, this cheap shortcut had become the norm.

On the day of Ken’s accident he was asked at the end of his shift to carry out the CIP clean. He had never done this before, but was prepared to help his boss and make sure the day shift didn’t have to do it. Although experienced staff were around, there was that feeling of anxiety to get home as the end of the shift drew closer.

Ken tried to find the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) (a chemical suit and eye goggles) but there was nothing available. He later found out that the chemical suit was in such a poor condition it would have been unusable anyway.

When the two chemicals were mixed together there was an instantaneous violent reaction that flew in to Ken’s face – just 18 inches away from the explosion. The reaction was so extreme it hit the 70ft high factory ceiling. His life was saved by his colleagues who manhandled him into a nearby emergency shower and held him in while he struggled to get out.

The last person Ken would ever see was his friend and manager Grahame Norris.

Ken was severely burned and eventually it was confirmed that he had lost his sight (his eyes had to be removed), his sense of smell and sense of taste (absent, except from the occasional really strong curry). He had just got engaged to Sue and offered her the chance to leave rather than be stuck with him. Thankfully, she decided to stay.

“The subsequent investigation revealed that there had been at least two previous near misses that were not investigated properly…”

Many of his colleagues were severely traumatised by what they had witnessed at their shift changeover time and needed counselling. Lee Birks (Ken’s closest friend) blamed himself for not stopping Ken carrying out the procedure he knew little or nothing about. Although he saved Ken’s life by holding him in the shower, he never truly came to terms with letting his friend down.

The subsequent investigation revealed that there had been at least two previous near misses that were not investigated properly and merely put down to operator clumsiness. A lab test had been carried out on the CIP process used at the plant, the results of which were sent via internal mail and arrived 7 hours too late after Ken’s accident. Had they been transmitted to the plant immediately, the accident would never have occurred.

The chemical reaction was found to be down to stabilisers in the two chemicals that acted as catalysts in the resulting exothermic reaction.

Safety glasses would have saved Ken's eyesight

Safety glasses would have saved Ken’s eyesight

The company was fined under COSHH regulations. It is estimated that after lost production time, compensations and fines the company took a total financial loss of £2.6 million. They changed their systems and procedures and introduced their Zero Accident Behaviours (ZAB) programme, using Ken and Lattitude Safety consultant Martin Woodall to change the way they thought about and acted upon safety. One site not only stopped their annual fatality record but had a motivated workforce that increased productivity by 15%, working safer than ever before. The company went from a “Chase the case” culture to a safe behaviours culture.

Ken now presents his story and teaches the benefits of safety to organisations, workplaces and individuals all over the world. In 2006 he was presented with the O.B.E from Prince Charles for his efforts toward safety excellence.