A utility company has been given a huge £1.8million fine for failing to protect a worker from the risk of drowning at its waste water treatment works.

Truro Crown Court court ruled South West Water not only failed to ensure the worker’s safety but that it repeatedly ignored advice to deal with potential dangers in its working practices.

The court heard the employee was doing a routine maintenance task when he slipped and fell into an infiltration tank. The man had been working alone and was left with no way of escaping. Although he activated the company’s lone worker alarm system it took 90 minutes for someone to investigate. His body was found face down in water.

All talk, no action

South West Water was well aware of the risks. It was warned workers could fall into tanks and had no way of getting out. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) raised concerns about railing heights, trip hazards and working alone after a worker fell in an earlier incident. But the HSE’s recommendations had not been acted on.

While the company had many of its own Health & Safety inspections, meetings, memos and proposals, very little was done about the risk of drowning. According to the prosecution, there was “a lot of talk but not a lot of action”.

The HSE said exposure to the risk of drowning could have easily been controlled if the task had been properly planned and simple measures adopted earlier.

Accident waiting to happen

The judge pointed out “no correct risk assessment” had been done for the task. He stated the danger of falling into tanks was pointed out several times and that “something needed to be done to address it”.

He added South West Water did not do what they should have done or what they said they were going to do. The judge concluded it was an accident “waiting to happen” and that a substantial fine was needed to show Health & Safety is a serious matter.

South West Water Ltd pleaded guilty to breaking the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. It was fined £1.8million and ordered to pay costs of £41,600.

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