Internal minutes reveal safety issues at major Novo Nordisk construction site

Minutes from a meeting at the firm show that safety measures at Novo Nordisk’s construction site in Kalundborg are seriously lacking. 
The employees at Novo Nordisk's construction site did not feel that the evacuation of the employees during the fire in mid-May went well, and the pharmaceutical company had apparently not finalized a clear evacuation plan, even though the groundbreaking ceremony for the site took place 3.5 years ago. | Photo: Jokum Tord Larsen/Ritzau Scanpix
The employees at Novo Nordisk's construction site did not feel that the evacuation of the employees during the fire in mid-May went well, and the pharmaceutical company had apparently not finalized a clear evacuation plan, even though the groundbreaking ceremony for the site took place 3.5 years ago. | Photo: Jokum Tord Larsen/Ritzau Scanpix

When a blaze broke out in May and sent a black column of smoke over Kalundborg from the Novo Nordisk construction site, there was no clear evacuation plan for the many people on site.

According to minutes from a safety meeting at the site on May 21, five days after the fire, there was dissatisfaction with the evacuation.

”From the point of view of ConM [the construction manager, ed.-] and HSE [Health, Safety and Environment, ed.-], the evacuation went well, but those present had a different opinion. There is no real, genuine evacuation system and evacuation is mainly done manually by ConM and safety people,” the minutes state.

”The safety officer was already working on a safety and environmental warning system and Novo Nordisk promised to get an evacuation system in place as soon as possible,” it continues.

Novo Nordisk broke ground on the construction site in Kalundborg back in December 2021, and according to Lene Faber Ussing, Deputy Head of Department of Civil Engineering at Aalborg University, such a large construction project must have a fixed plan from the start, which is also continuously updated.

”It must include clear evacuation plans, first aid equipment, escape routes and much more. If I had been in charge of that group, I would have been sounding the alarm long time ago. And it would have been close to a firing if it hadn’t been a firing if warnings were ignored,” Lene Faber Ussing tells MedWatch.

More problems

The minutes from the safety meeting on May 21st this year also mention a number of other safety issues at the site that have come to light after the fire. These include the need for an evacuation drill, a clear alarm procedure and an effective alert system, and a review of the weak telephone signal at the site, which also has too few exits to quickly evacuate the many employees in the fenced area.

In addition, it appears that first aid equipment was missing from the site.

According to Christian Koch, professor and head of the Department of Technology and Innovation at the University of Southern Denmark, this paints an unprofessional and highly critical picture of the construction site.

”Of course, it’s extremely poor preparation that they only become aware of such things after a fire so long after construction has started. As it is such a large construction site, that is probably illegal,” says Christian Koch.

Ussing from Aalborg University is particularly struck by the absence of first aid equipment.

”It’s really scary that you can have such a large construction site and not have first aid equipment on it. Especially when you’ve had an accident,” says the deputy head of department, who explains that, among other things, first aid equipment must be set up in fixed locations around the site, and that there must be fixed emergency phones and regular fire drills.

”The working environment rules say that this must be in place. This is also normally done on large sites, so I’m very surprised that it wasn’t at such a large company,” says Ussing.

Present during the fire

The West Zealand Fire Department, which extinguished the fire at the construction site on May 16, explains, however, that the Danish Emergency Response Act does not apply to the construction site and therefore the authorities have not inspected the site, as it is Novo Nordisk’s sole responsibility to comply with legislation regarding fire roads, access routes, evacuation plans, first aid equipment and so on.

”Novo Nordisk is responsible for that. At least they should be, because I can’t see anyone else being responsible. As long as it’s a construction site, we don’t really have anything legislative to do in there. It’s up to the owner until we can inspect the finished buildings,” says Jan Bruun, Area Manager for Prevention & Authority at the service.

He explains that Novo Nordisk is responsible for setting up evacuation points at the construction site and is responsible for a fixed evacuation plan. The fire brigade was only responsible for rescuing the workers from the roof of the burning building and not for the actual evacuation of the entire construction site.

”Only the craftsmen on the roof where the roof fire started noticed the fire, tried to put it out and ran away. The main danger was that the fire could spread, because it was very windy that day, and we had to secure some gas cylinders from the roof,” says Bruun, who arrived about 20 minutes into the firefighting operation.

Gag agreement in contract

Ussing from Aalborg University also explains that Novo Nordisk, as the developer, is responsible for drawing up clear evacuation plans and has the final responsibility in the matter.

”But there is someone on the construction site who should be embarrassed. Of course, it’s the day-to-day construction management that runs the construction and safety meetings, where there is also a requirement for a safety officer to be on site,” she says.

Novo Nordisk has appointed its own consulting company, Novo Nordisk Engineering (NNE), as day-to-day construction management with responsibility for the construction site. However, Klaus Kjær Nielsen, who is NNE’s safety manager at the site, says that he has signed a contract not to speak to the press.

As Project Vice President, Thomas Saabye has overall responsibility for the entire construction site, and he explains that NNE has construction management and responsibility on site, but that NNE has a firm agreement with Novo Nordisk that it is always the pharmaceutical company that speaks to the press.

However, Novo Nordisk does not want to give interviews on the matter, and Press Manager Lars Otto Andersen-Lange will not confirm or deny any of the safety issues that appear in NNE’s minutes from the safety meeting at the construction site. He maintains that there is indeed an evacuation plan in the emergency plan for the construction site, but the company will not say when was finalized.

”It was in place before the fire, we didn’t put a date on it,” the press manager writes in an email.

It’s confusing that you write emergency plan in your response when I asked specifically about an evacuation plan for the site?

”Emergency plan/evacuation plan covers the same thing. We have no further comments,” writes Andersen-Lange.

But your answer here contradicts what is stated in the internal minutes. Why do you say that there was an evacuation plan in place before the fire, when it appears from the minutes that there wasn’t?

”Unfortunately, we cannot comment further on this matter,” Andersen-Lange replies.

”Old Nordic”

Ussing explains that, according to the regulations, an emergency plan must contain a continuously updated and comprehensive evacuation plan so everyone knows what to do and where to go if an alarm goes off.

In addition, updated evacuation routes from the plan must also be posted as drawings around the site.

”The first time a breach of this is discovered by the Danish Working Environment Authority, you usually get an injunction and a warning, but if it happens again, it will cost you fines. If an injunction is issued, you have to close the site until the problems are rectified because it’s deemed too dangerous,” says Ussing, adding:

”There shouldn’t be a workplace today without first aid equipment. It seems more old Nordic than Novo Nordisk to me that a place like this would even think of not having first aid equipment.” 

Problems continue

According to the minutes of a safety meeting at the construction site on June 3, 14 days after the first safety meeting after the fire, it seems that there has still not been much action on safety conditions. It reiterates the need for action on the same safety issues such as an effective warning system, number of exits, holding an evacuation drill, inadequate telephone signal on site and so on.

At the meeting, Novo Nordisk reiterated its intention to have an evacuation system in place as soon as possible.

”HSE will involve the different companies and will be positive about playing a positive role in future evacuations of people, especially around sheds and in counting people,” the June minutes state.

Setting up first aid equipment is also listed as a point of attention that still needs to be addressed.

After MedWatch highlighted that workers without either a Danish work permit or valid certification to work with open fire started the large fire at the construction site in May, the trade union 3F has become involved in the case and has requested a dialog with the pharmaceutical company.

Novo Nordisk has both welcomed the dialogue and promised to tighten up its approach to work permits and the use of foreign labor, which until then had been based on ”trust”.

Novo Nordisk expects the construction in Kalundborg to be completed in 2027.

English edit: Catherine Brett

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