Earlier this week (8th July 2013) a Leeds-based company which manufactures products for the aerospace and power generation industries, was ordered to pay £377,500 in fines and costs over the death of one of their employees, Graham Britten. Mr Britten was a maintenance fitter for AETC Ltd, which is part of American company PCC Airfoils.
Mr Britten was carrying out maintenance in a vacuum casting furnace at AETC Ltd, a firm in Yeadon, Leeds, when the main isolation valve closed suddenly, trapping his head. Tragically, he died at the scene, aged only 46.
The incident, on 4th November 2009, was investigated by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and the company was prosecuted for a serious breach of safety legislation. Leeds Crown Court was told that the HSE uncovered repeated failings by AETC Ltd that had put many employees at risk of death or injury for several years.
Mr Britten had gone to a furnace with a colleague to fix a fault after the main isolation valve had become jammed part-way while closing. The furnace comprised two chambers separated by the large sliding isolation valve. Mr Britten was standing on the rising table within the lower furnace chamber inspecting the valve when it suddenly closed, causing fatal head injuries.
The HSE established that AETC Ltd did not have an effective isolation procedure for maintenance work on the furnace and had failed to act for several years on repeated recommendations from their own Corporate Health and Safety Manager. It was also found that the company had failed to adequately train and supervise maintenance staff.
The court was told that the lack of a consistent, monitored isolation policy resulted in there being no effective procedures in place to prevent Mr Britten entering the chamber without first isolating the equipment and releasing stored energy.
As well as a lack of effective procedures to ensure safety during maintenance work, the investigation also revealed that the furnace control systems, intended to protect operators when carrying out routine cleaning within the furnace chambers, were inadequate and exposed them to unnecessary risk.
The company, based in Yeadon, Leeds, was fined £300,000 and ordered to pay £75,500 in costs after pleading guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Judge Tom Bayliss, QC, said: “At the time of the accident there was no robust system in place to ensure safety during maintenance. It was left to the discretion of the fitters. It was, I’m sorry to say, a shambles.” The Judge was right to call it so. We have health & safety legislation in this country to prevent accidents like this and the company showed a blatant disregard for the legislation and, indeed, for the health and lives of its workers.
After the case, HSE Inspector Dr Angus Robbins advised that there were two main issues in the defective work practices that needed to be noted: Firstly, the furnace operators routinely climbed into the furnace to clean, thinking that when the furnace doors were open the valve could not move. This was not the case and they were continually at risk.
Secondly, there was no safe system for maintenance work. There were no isolation procedures and, as a result, the fitters had developed their own methods of working out of necessity. The company failed them.
What is so very sad in this case is that the maintenance work that Mr Britten was carrying out was not unforeseen. It was regular and necessary. Also, the jamming of the isolation valve was a recurring problem which the company knew about, yet they did nothing, despite earlier warnings and recommendations to ‘fix’ bad practice.
Safe isolation procedures were required, together with training, supervision and monitoring. These are basic requirements for companies. Had these been in place, Mr Britten’s needless death would have been prevented.
The latest statistics from HSE show that there were 31 deaths for 2011/12 within the manufacturing industries alone.
Compensation for death can be obtained for a wife (or husband) and dependants in fatal accident cases by way of a civil claim against the negligent company. This can include past losses, but also future financial losses and the cost of services that would have been provided by the deceased had death not occurred. The compensation payments can vary but may be between £200,000 and £500,000 depending upon the losses utilised in the calculations. This, of course, can give financial security for those left behind. However, one thing is for sure; the families would rather the deaths had not occurred at all.