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SPECIAL INVESTIGATION PART 7

 

£2 fine: Life can be especially cheap in the workplace

Life can be cheap demo image

Chris Knoop died in a workplace explosion. The directors of the company responsible didn’t turn up for the court case. And the fine was just £2. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says it's no wonder deaths at work outstrip murders by more than two to one.

Itís worse than murder

Hazards 103 July-September 2008


Chris Knoop image

It was over a year before anyone told Christel Stewart her brother had died in an horrific workplace explosion. “The local police came round and told me,” she recalls. “They asked if there was somewhere quiet we could speak. I guessed it was Chris.”

Factory worker Christopher Knoop, 50, was killed and three others were seriously hurt when liquified petroleum gas exploded at North West Aerosols Ltd in Aintree at 7.45am on 13 December 2005. An investigation revealed widespread electrical faults, an unsafe system of work and inadequate training for employees. On the day of the blast, a trainee engineer had been delegated to start up the production line.

As the blaze ripped through the factory, Chris and fellow workers Gary Brine, Kevin Armstrong and Graham Ryder tried to flee. His three colleagues survived with serious burns, after rolling under conveyor belts and running from the factory shedding their clothes. Chris took refuge in an office, but a fireball ripped through the building before he could make his escape.

Chiristel and son image3
CHRISTEL CLEAR Chris Knoop’s sister Christel Stewart believes more active HSE enforcement and meaningful penalties on negligent directors are necessary to prevent fatalities. www.fack.org.uk

“I still haven’t grasped how he died,” Christel told Hazards. ”It was horrendous, I find it so hard to come to grips with, how terrible it must have been. They pulled out the guys that were injured, but then the fireball came. I keep asking myself ‘was he dead before the fireball or did it kill him?’ I find it difficult to get it out of my head.”

Judge Graham Morrow QC, sitting at Liverpool Crown Court in June, said the tragedy was “an accident waiting to happen,” but he was only able to impose the “absurd and unreasonable” fine of £1 for each of two safety offences, and £1 towards costs. He said had the company been making a profit he would have fined it at least £250,000.

The company’s directors - Stanley Brine, Len Buckland and Jim Milnes – did not attend any of the court proceedings, and the firm was not represented in court. The directors put the firm into voluntary liquidation after the tragedy. One, Brine, has relocated to Spain. Christel has been told another of the directors “is now working as a safety consultant for a firm in a related industry.”

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which investigated the case and brought the prosecution, said there was not enough evidence to charge the directors with any offence. HSE principal investigator Keith Morris said he was satisfied with the outcome, despite legal costs of nearly £18,000.

He said: “The sad circumstances of this incident should remind the whole chemical industry to ensure they have clear and adequate procedures that cover all aspects of plant operation. All employees must be properly trained and supervised for their work. Had the company done this then Chris Knoop would not have died and Gary Brine, Kevin Armstrong and Graham Ryder, would not have been seriously injured.” The inspector added that the prosecution was “a warning to other companies of what can happen if they don’t comply with HSE regulations.”

Dying in droves at work

FACK demo pic

People are more than twice as likely to die from fatal injuries at work than be the victim of a homicide, a June report has revealed.

Academics Professor Steve Tombs and Dr Dave Whyte calculate in 2005/6 there was a 14 in a million chance of being murdered in England and Wales. The workplace fatality rate in Britain that year was between 35 and 42 per million.

The researchers found that at least 1,300 people died as a result of fatal occupational injuries in Britain in 2005/6, compared with 765 homicide deaths in England and Wales. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies report, ‘A crisis of enforcement’, argues that the recent trend towards “light touch” regulation of business has in effect “decriminalised” death and injury at work.

Professor Steve Tombs said: “Violent street crime consumes enormous political, media and academic energy. But, as hundreds of thousands of workers and their families know, it is the violence associated with working for a living that is most likely to kill and hospitalise.” Co-author Dr David Whyte added: “HSE enforcement notices fell by 40 per cent and prosecutions fell by 49 per cent between 2001/02 and 2005/06. The collapse in HSE enforcement and prosecution sends a clear message that the government is prepared to let employers kill and maim with impunity.”

A crisis of enforcement: the decriminalisation of death and injury at work, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, 17 June 2008. www.crimeandjustice.org.uk

Christel is grateful for the support she received from HSE, but she is disgusted at the outcome of the court proceedings. “I don’t see how this can make an example of the company. The only example here is ‘just close it and run away and you’ll be alright’. You can’t be allowed to cause death and injury to people and walk away from it.”

She said the penalty was “just a joke. There is no justice. At the very least I’d have expected the directors to be in court. I found this so galling. There was no-one there in an official capacity. From a moral point of view I find that particularly appalling.” She added: “I will not let this rest and I intend to fight on, not just for the sake of Christopher but for all the other employees who are put at risk by results like this.”

Christel wants to see greater efforts to ensure firms operate safely. “There should be regular checks. HSE needs to be there before it happens, in there on the ground, enforcing. HSE is hampered by a lack of legislation and it’s deeply, deeply sad that they don’t have more people and resources.”

Members of campaign group Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) joined Christel in a protest outside the court. Spokesperson Hilda Palmer commented: “This case shows the need for directors’ duties very starkly. FACK feels that directors running a company and taking the profit, have a moral and legal duty to comply with the law, protect workers, and to be held to account if they fail. We are calling on the government and the HSE to look urgently at the need to change the law to stop other workers being killed.”

Christel agrees. “Directors should be made accountable. Directors are wholly and totally responsible. There’s no way they should be operating a company without knowing what going on, what to do when things are wrong, then taking action. If they don’t take these measures they should be going to jail or at the very least getting a hefty fine.” That, she said, might need a change in the law.

Chris, who trained as an engineer in the merchant navy, was a widower and had no family living close. Christel, with four young kids, lives in Gloucestershire and had not seen him as frequently as she would have liked but remembers her older brother with great affection. “He was a very sensitive, caring guy, very fond of kids, would do anything for anyone,” she said. “He had such a fun sense of humour.”

Christel’s seven-year-old son, George, watching coverage of the trial verdict on television, said: “Does this mean that they killed uncle Chris for £3?”

“It was true, so true,” said Christel. “They killed him for £3.”

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Fined but free after deaths

Two cases this year illustrate how company bosses can be found guilty of serious safety crimes but still escape jail.

Company boss John Beckett, 44, was cleared in May 2008 of the manslaughter of a worker who died after inhaling poisonous fumes – but was fined £17,500 for a safety offence. He had been accused over the death of 21-year-old Dean Cox, who was found slumped over a vat of chemicals used to strip alloy wheels at Wolverhampton firm A1.

Judge Richard Griffith Jones entered a not guilty verdict on the charge of manslaughter by gross negligence after Beckett’s lawyers argued there was no case to answer. The judge, however, said Mr Cox had died because of Beckett’s failings. “One of the obvious and serious aggravating features is that a young man's life was risked and then lost as a result of your failure to ensure a safe system of work was applied,” he said.

In a second May verdict, two contractors and two individuals were fined after a German worker died at a depot in Worksop, Nottinghamshire – but a manager was found not guilty of manslaughter. Hans Zdolsek fell 8.5m while he was working at the Wilkinsons distribution centre in February 2004. The firm has used plastic tie-wraps to secure a guard rail.

Main contractor Siemens Dematic, now known as Oldbury (Banbury), was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay £47,000 costs at Nottingham Crown Court. Racking installation contractor Stow (UK) was fined £80,000 and ordered to pay costs of £41,000.

Siemens Dematic project manager David Hill was found not guilty of manslaughter but received a £2,500 fine with £500 costs. The site's health and safety director David Hastie received the same penalty. He admitted he knew plastic tie-wraps were being used to secure guardrails but did nothing to intervene

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Corus rapped for another death

 

Hutin family pic
FIGHTING BACK The Hutin family have become prominent members of Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) since the death of Andrew, aged just 20, in an explosion at a Corus steelworks (see below). www.fack.org.uk

Even major companies with a history of deadly criminal safety offences can be let off with fines that barely make a dent in their turnover – and call into question the deterrent effect of fines alone.

An incident that saw a Corus worker crushed to death has cost the company just £200,000 in fines and costs in April – the second time it had received a six figure fine related to a fatality in less than three months.

The tragedy happened at the company’s Brinsworth site at Rotherham. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said a limit switch fitted to the crane was defective, allowing the hoist rope to over-tighten and snap, causing a 260kg block to fall onto strip mill worker Shane Eastwood. The 34-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene on 2 July 2003.

HSE inspector David Bradley said: “The limit switch fitted to this crane to prevent over hoisting was a safety critical device. It should have been properly maintained in a safe working condition, and regularly tested. The fact that these simple measures were not taken led to this tragic death.”

Corus UK Ltd was fined £170,000 for safety offences and ordered to pay costs of £30,000.

In February 2008, Corus was fined £250,000 and told to pay costs of £43,000 following the workplace death of Francis Coles, 42, a worker at its Trostre plant in Llanelli. It was also fined £125,000 in August 2007 after a worker suffered horrific, near fatal burns at its Scunthorpe plant.

The firm was fined £1.3m in December 2006 for criminal safety breaches which led to the death of three workers in a November 2001 explosion at its Port Talbot steelworks, with the total fine and costs bill topping £3m (Hazards 97). Justice Lloyd-Jones criticised a “casual” attitude to safety that led to the deaths of Len Radford, 53, Stephen Galsworthy, 25, and Andrew Hutin, 20.

Hazards website www.hazards.org/corus


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Businessmen behaving badly

 

Recent cases show how courts fail to treat workplace deaths with the same seriousness of other deaths arising out of criminal neglect.

Car service garage Alexanders of Twickenham Ltd has been fined £20,000 and £16,905 after mechanic Biagio Malacaria was killed when he was set alight while working on a car’s fuel system in the presence of sources of ignition.

Calders and Grandidge Limited, part of the construction products multinational Saint-Gobain, has been fined £120,000 and £51,000 after employee Nigel Sargeant, 45, fell to his death at one of its yards, when a new wagon stacking arrangement was poorly risk assessed and failed.

The London Central Bus Company Limited has been fined £60,000 and £15,347 costs after bus chassis cleaner Omar Maouche fell into a vehicle inspection pit and suffered spinal injuries, just over a year after another employee died in similar circumstances.

Vehicle maker Dennis Eagle Limited has been fined £166,000 and £22,612 costs after mechanic Simon Rose, 39, was crushed to death trying to cure a brake fault on a bin wagon at a council depot. The brake released, the vehicle moved off makeshift chocks and he was crushed.

Transport firm Berser International Cargo Services Ltd has been fined £22,000 and £18,000 costs after lorry driver Martyn Simm, 45, was killed when a defective sliding metal gate weighing 0.4 tonnes fell onto him.

White Reclamation Ltd has been fined £50,000 and £30,000 costs after employee Richard Buckley died when he was buried in waste while emptying his vehicle. There was no segregation of pedestrians or vehicles and no marshal or traffic management system.

York Council has been fined £20,000 and £20,425 costs after the “entirely avoidable” death of gardener Frank Smith, 54, crushed by a ride-on mower on an embankment. The incline was steeper than the maximum recommended by the mower’s manufacturer.

Edeco Petroleum Services has been fined £200,000 and £47,400 costs after sub-contractor Neil Millar, 36, was asphyxiated on a drilling job. His neck became trapped by a descending arm used to lift materials on a drilling rig.

 

 

 

Deadly Business.
A Haza
rds special investigation
The decimation of Britain's industrial base was supposed to have one obvious upside - an end to dirty and deadly jobs.
In this 'Deadly business' series, Hazards reveals how a hands off approach to safety regulation means workers continue to die in preventable 'accidents' at work.
Meanwhile, an absence of oversight means old industrial diseases are still affecting millions, and modern jobs are creating a bloodless epidemic of workplace diseases - from 'popcorn lung' to work related suicide.

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