A Portishead plant hire company has been fined after a worker was killed while operating a tarmac cutter in Box, Wiltshire. The worker died after becoming entangled in the cutting wheel of a machine designed to remove the top layers of tarmac on roads.
The HSE told Swindon Crown Court that the worker was sent by Direct Plant Services Ltd (trading as South and West Highways Trenching) to a site in Box to prepare trenches for new gas pipes.
The HSE investigation found that it was common practice for trench machine operators to check and change the picks during and at the end of each job. Although the firm recognised checking the picks was a two-man job, it routinely hired out the top cutter with only one worker. Checking the picks by a sole operator was quicker if the worker could leave his seat and observe the slowly rotating raised wheel.
Whilst operating the trenching machine with a top cutter attachment and after completing the trench the man got down from the cab of the machine while the cutting wheel was still raised and rotating. He became entangled in the wheel, suffering fatal injuries.
The court heard a safety switch under the operator’s seat to stop the engine and the cutting wheel when the seat was vacated had been deliberately disabled. HSE also found the safety switches on all three top cutters owned by the firm had been bypassed.
South and West Highways Trenching, of Portishead, pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and three breaches of Regulation 11 of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 in relation to the incident. The company was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay £56,890 in costs.
The HSE inspector commented after the case that South and West Highways Trenching paid scant regard to the welfare of its employees and took dangerous shortcuts in its attitude toward safety. The company’s safety failings had disastrous consequences.
Clearly this case demonstrates a company that failed to properly consider the health and safety of their employees, and makes you wonder why this was not a case of Corporate Manslaughter (CM) where the punishment would have been far greater.
How is it that such a business can operate with safety switches taped down on it its machinery and not follow its own procedures and not be considered to be Grossly Negligent?
These are powerful machines, designed to cut through tarmac. They are fitted with safety switches for a very good reason – to prevent operators getting too close to rotating cutting wheels. Sending any of the three company machines to sites with one operator and with the safety switches deliberately bypassed would clearly put workers at risk of serious injury or death while trying to check the picks.
These cases show that there are still too many businesses operating that appear to put little value on worker safety.
Although the case did not get taken forwards under CM the damage to the company’s reputation is immense as a quick Google search shows 6 results on page one all relating to the prosecution.