Every week on the HSE website, we see cases of businesses prosecuted for a failure to guard moving parts on machinery. Many of these involve workers losing fingers or parts of fingers in the machinery they are working with. Looking at these we wonder “what is the right level of fine the courts should be issuing for such failures?”
As most of the cases are presented by the HSE as breaches of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998, then it would be possible for the courts to issue a fine of £20,000 per separate breach. However evidence suggests that the fines are often far less than this. Take two recent cases as follows:
- A food manufacturer has appeared in court for safety offences after one of its workers lost the tip of her finger using a badly-guarded machine in a Doncaster factory. The worker severed the end of the ring finger on her left hand as she tried to clear a blockage in a packing machine at King Asia Foods Ltd. The HSE investigated the incident and prosecuted the company for breaching regulations designed to safeguard workers using machinery.
Doncaster Magistrates heard that the lady was in the production area at the firm’s premises in Doncaster Carr industrial estate. A mobile screw conveyor was being used to fill a packing machine with powdered ingredients but the machine was known to block regularly.
The HSE found that the fixed guard over the top of the hopper, which prevented workers getting access to the dangerous screw part, had been modified. Instead of being fixed at all four corners, it was fixed at only two, allowing it to be lifted while the machine was running.
It appears that the lady attempted to clear a blockage while the machine was operating and her hand slipped, hitting the screw mechanism. She was released from hospital after treatment the same day and has since found work with another firm.
King Asia Foods Ltd, of Middlebank, Doncaster, was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2,506 after admitting breaching the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998.
The HSE inspector commented that this incident would not have been possible had the fixed guard not been modified, and had a safe system of work for clearing blockages been established by King Asia Foods and understood by all employees.
- A Berkshire labels company has been fined for a safety breach after a worker sustained a serious hand injury when it was caught between two contra rotating rollers on a working machine.
The employee severed the first finger of his right hand to the second knuckle and broke his middle finger in the incident at Berkshire Labels Limited in Hungerford.
Reading Magistrates’ Court heard that he was attempting to clean a coating roller on a finishing machine, and had removed the roller several times to make adjustments and clean away dried on primer. He then tried to brush off the dried primer from the roller while it was in situ on the working machine, but his right hand was caught and pulled between two rollers, including the one he had just fitted. He was unable to work for six weeks as a result of his injury and required physiotherapy.
An investigation by the HSE established that the machine was missing suitable guarding, and had been for some time. Had a guard been fitted the incident would have been avoided.
Berkshire Labels Limited, of Hungerford, was fined £7,000 and ordered to pay £5,637 in costs after pleading guilty to breaching Regulation 11(1) of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations.
The HSE Inspector commented that the employee’s painful injury should not and need not have happened, and was easily preventable had Berkshire Labels fitted guarding to prevent access to the rollers.
These two cases show the courts are prepared to issue fines that run into the thousands but are not at the moment using the full potential fines available. That said, for the larger companies then the fines do tend to increase in size.
What seems strange in these cases is how the courts decide the level of fine and how much of the prosecution costs should be paid by the defendant. However from what the HSE have told us it’s not the size of the fine that is important to them, rather that they succeed in securing a prosecution as this has further reaching implications on the businesses (such as entry on to the HSE name and shame database).
Clearly what might seem like minor oversights in businesses across the UK are leading some businesses to incur un-necessarily high costs; so we would ask you to stop and think “could this happen to my business?” These fines show that it is far better and cheaper to take a proactive look rather than wait for the HSE to come calling.