Coronavirus might be the focus of employers' health and safety efforts right now, but it's not the only risk that needs to be managed.
Workplaces present numerous hazards, from uneven floors to dangerous machinery, and the HSE has recently reminded employers not to become complacent to these ‘basic’ health and safety risks while their attention is on infection control.
In fact, despite its nationwide inspection campaign to ensure businesses are COVID-secure, five of the highest fines handed to employers in recent months have been entirely unrelated to their coronavirus safety measures.
Here’s a timely reminder of areas that must still be addressed, and the potentially devastating effects of non-compliance.
1. Costain fined £1.2m after steel cage collapse
Construction giant Costain and subcontractor Brenbuild were prosecuted after a steel cage crashed into a mobile elevated working platform (MEWP) containing two workers.
The men were erecting a steel reinforcement cage at a road bridge when it crashed on to the MEWP, causing it to fall on its side.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) discovered that there was no temporary support for the steel cage. Investigators found that both firms:
- Were aware the cage was visibly leaning and that site workers had raised concerns;
- Did not recognise the inherent instability of the cage; and
- Had not taken measures to ensure the work on the MEWP could be carried out safely.
Costain had failed to plan, manage and monitor the work, while Brenbuild failed to prevent the risk of collapse and implement controls to prevent instability.
Costain Limited pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £1.2m and ordered to pay costs of £21,644. Brenbuild Limited also pleaded guilty to breaching the Act. It was fined £80,000 and ordered to pay costs of £21,730.
2. Manufacturer fined £367k after fatal crush
A textile manufacturer whose “lax” attitude to health and safety led to an employee being fatally crushed was fined hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The factory worker was using a knife to remove fibres stuck to a machine’s rollers when he became entangled in the machinery. An investigation by the HSE found that the machine was not adequately guarded.
The court heard that it was common for the synthetic fibres to “lap” on the rollers and create a blockage. HSE investigators learned that:
- The fibres were sometimes cut by putting a wooden pole with a serrated metal blade on the end through a safety gate – but that this did not always work.
- Staff, including managers, had for decades reached around the safety gate and cut the laps by hand with a knife – the emergency stop was not accessible from this position.
The court was told the stricken worker had complained how he felt it was “an accident waiting to happen”.
IFG Drake Ltd pleaded guilty to failing to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £366,850 and ordered to pay £23,993 in costs.
In sentencing, the judge said: “My assessment of all the evidence is that the company’s attitude to health and safety has been lax”. The judge added how familiarity and lack of previous incidents had led to a prevailing attitude of complacency and resistance to change or suggestions made by an outside health and safety consultant.
3. Meat firm fined £310k after two workers lose fingers
A meat processing firm was fined after two workers had their fingers amputated by machinery.
An employee on a sausage processing line tried to clear a blockage by pushing the meat down into the mincer. He lost part of his finger when it came into contact with moving machinery.
In a second incident, a worker was using a meat mixer to make cocktail sausages. In the process of emptying sausage meat, he put his hand through a gap and his fingers got caught in the mixer’s revolving metal paddles.
In both cases, the workers were not given sufficient training and the safety measures were inadequate.
Halls of Scotland and Browns Manufacturing Limited pleaded guilty to failing to ensure the dangerous parts of the machinery were inaccessible and not providing training for their staff. The court handed out a £120,000 fine for the first incident and £190,000 for the second.
The judge commented: “Both of these machines were capable of inflicting serious injury on any employee putting their hand near to them. It was submitted that both were isolated incidents but the fact that there was a second incident after the first must raise questions about health and safety practices. Both of these accidents were entirely avoidable had a safety guard been in place”.
4. Automotive firm and occupational health provider fined £140k over power tool use
A motor vehicle repair company and occupational health and safety consultancy were both sentenced for safety breaches after a worker developed hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).
An employee who regularly used handheld power tools to carry out vehicle body work repairs was diagnosed with HAVS. An investigation by the HSE found that his employer had failed to adequately assess and control the foreseeable health risk to power tool users. Following the diagnosis, the employer did not act to protect the employee from further health damage and failed to report his condition in line with the legal requirement.
S & Ash Ltd was engaged by the motor firm to provide HAVS employee health surveillance. The investigation also found that following the health surveillance, S & Ash failed to provide suitable and accurate advice to the employer or to inform the employee of the results of his health surveillance, even when specifically requested to do so.
Perrys Motor Sales Ltd pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) 2013. The company was fined £140,000 and ordered to pay £7,658 in costs.
S & Ash Ltd (previously known as Sound Advice Safety and Health Ltd) pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £4,000 and was ordered to pay £8,716 in costs.
The HSE said: “Vibration can cause long-term painful damage to hands and fingers. The motor vehicle repair trade must understand the importance of suitable risk assessments and having a robust occupational health and safety management system. Employers should ensure that the results of health surveillance are acted upon and employees are protected from the risks from HAV when working with handheld power tools”.
It added: “Occupational health providers are in a unique position in safeguarding the health of employees and must provide accurate reports to employers following HAV health surveillance. Employers must act on these reports”.
5. Council fined £100k over tree branch fatality
Wirral Borough Council was fined after “systemic failures” led to a tree branch falling and striking a vehicle driven by a pregnant woman.
The expectant mother suffered suspected major stomach trauma. The baby had to be delivered by an emergency caesarean but only lived 15 hours.
The court heard that the moving vehicle was struck by a large branch falling from a mature horse chestnut tree. The branch broke through the windscreen and driver window and struck the woman’s side.
HSE investigators found that the fallen branch had a crack on its upper edge where it was joined to the main trunk. It had been separating from the main trunk for at least one growing season before the failure. The local authority park tree had not been inspected for at least 13 years despite being adjacent to a public highway.
Prosecutors said that the council failed to identify and manage the risks from falling trees and branches, and failed to implement a robust system of inspection of trees in its remit – despite a similar earlier incident.
Wirral Borough Council pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay costs of £49,363.
Protect your people and your business
Health and safety law has not been relaxed in any way, shape or form during the coronavirus pandemic, and employers must continue to take all “reasonably practicable” measures to keep people safe.
In addition to this general duty of care, there is also more specific legislation to comply with, including working with chemicals, work equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE). Managing all of these elements can be a large undertaking, especially when an unforeseen risk like COVID-19 is introduced.