Health and safety is often seen as separate to other business activities, but with million-pound fines now commonplace, health and safety failings can make or break a business.

Even if a business can weather such significant financial penalties, the reputational impact can be a cost from which some may never recover.

The average fine for breach of health and safety law in 2017/18 was £147,000, with total fines exceeding £72 million. In the last couple of months alone, we’ve seen the following substantial penalties for health and safety breaches resulting in serious injury or even death.

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1. Chevron refinery explosion

In June, oil company Chevron was fined £5 million after four contractors were killed in a refinery explosion. A fifth worker suffered life-changing burns. The workers had been draining a chemical storage tank when it exploded.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the explosion was most likely caused by ignition of a highly flammable atmosphere within the tank. Investigators found longstanding failures within the refinery’s safety management systems and, as a result, the risks posed by flammable vapour within storage tanks were not controlled.

Days before the explosion, a gas test should have alerted the refinery to the flammable atmosphere. However, the results were either miscommunicated or “not understood”. The judge commented: “If the work had been stopped [at this point], the explosion would not have happened”.

The judge said those working for Chevron at the time failed to “know of” or “appreciate” the risk of flammable vapour building up inside tanks. The court heard it was impossible to say for certain what caused the explosion. However, experts believe the blast was caused by either:

  • Pyrogenic substances within the tank, which can ignite spontaneously when dry; or
  • Sparks from an unearthed hosepipe – a specialist cleaning company had failed to follow its own safety protocol by using an unearthed pipe to drain the tank.

Chevron Limited accepted the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) 1974 had been breached and is to pay the £5 million fine plus costs of £1 million as part of a deal it struck with Valero Energy UK, which bought the site after the disaster.

Cleaning company, B&A Contracts, was fined £120,000 and ordered to pay cost of £40,000 after also pleading guilty to breaching the HSWA.

"This incident, which had devastating consequences for all of those involved, was entirely preventable. Many opportunities to take action to control risk were missed that would have prevented the incident from occurring."

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2. Contractor’s inappropriate lifting operation

A civil engineering company was fined more than £800,000 after a worker was struck by an object that fell from an excavator’s bucket. Workers were constructing a piling platform from large expanded polystyrene blocks. One of the blocks slipped from the bucket while being lowered into place.

HSE investigators found that the lifting operation had used inappropriate lifting accessories to transport the load – the bucket load was simply trapped against the excavator’s dipping arm.

Bam Nuttall Limited pleaded guilty to breaking the HSWA. It was fined £833,333 with costs of £5,478.

"This incident could so easily have been avoided by simply using appropriate lifting accessories such as chains and straps to carry out the lifting operation. Failure to do so has resulted in the serious injury. Companies should be aware that HSE will not hesitate to take appropriate action against those that fall below required standards."


3. Fatal crane crush

An electromagnet company was fined £400,000 after a worker was fatally crushed by an overhead gantry crane. The worker had climbed high up on top of a tank to investigate a problem with its chimney. However, a colleague operating the overhead gantry failed to spot him.

HSE investigators learned that the company had recently installed a chimney extension to the top of the tank. This increased the height at which staff could work. However, measures had not been implemented to make sure the gantry crane did not operate when workers were in that area. The court heard there had been a “near miss” with the crane and that a new risk assessment should have been done when the chimney was extended.

The judge said the company should have had proper controls in place.

Tesla Engineering Limited pleaded guilty to breaching the HSWA. It was fined £400,000 with costs of £7,546.

"Tesla Engineering adapted the work process it carried out but failed to review its planning or to take measures to ensure that workers could not be hit by the moving overhead gantry crane. Simple measures to either lock out the crane or to prevent workers accessing dangerous areas could have been implemented but were not."

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4. Worker fatally struck by lorry loader

A utility company was fined more than a third of a million pounds after the death of a crane operator. The worker was to move a delivery crate using a remote-controlled lorry loader. As he and a colleague attached slings to a hook, the worker was fatally struck by the loader. An investigation by the HSE found that the company failed to ensure that:

  • The lift was properly planned, effectively supervised and safely carried out; and
  • The worker received adequate training in operating the crane, especially as its remote-control posed additional risks.

National Grid Electricity Transmission PLC pleaded guilty to breaching the HSWA and the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER) 1998. It was fined £334,000 and ordered to pay costs of £17,673.

"This tragic incident could have been avoided if the company had properly planned the movement of the crate involved. Employers must recognise operating remote-controlled plants carry their own risks and should be managed appropriately, including through providing adequate training for employees."


5. Grain company worker fatally struck by lorry

A grain store company was fined £180,000 after an employee was fatally struck by a lorry at an industrial unit. The worker had left a control room to walk across the site. On leaving the building, he walked in front of a moving lorry. At an inquest into the death, a jury concluded the employee had “walked probably unseen by the driver” and that the death was an accident.

A HSE investigation found the company had failed to ensure the safe movement of pedestrians and vehicles around the site. Investigators discovered controls had not been put in place to prevent employees walking into areas where large vehicles moved.

Camgrain Stores Ltd admitted breaking the HSWA. It was fined £180,000 and ordered to pay costs of £20,000.

"Being struck by vehicles is one of the most common causes of workplace fatal accidents. This was a tragic and wholly avoidable incident caused by failure of the host company to undertake a number of simple measures."


Experts in reducing risk

With the HSE’s annual fatal injuries report revealing that 147 workers were killed at work in Great Britain in 2018/19, it’s essential that employers receive the right support to help them fulfil their duties, keep staff safe, and avoid substantial fines.

Owing to the quality of our advice, practical hands-on support and robust safety management systems, Ellis Whittam reduce the risk of prosecution by c.50% and the cost of any fine imposed by more than 85%.

Speak to us today about how support from a dedicated Health & Safety specialist will help to safeguard your business against financial and reputational risk. Call 0124 464 6164 or request a free consultation using the button below.

ONLINE TRAINING | IOSH Safety for Executives and Directors

Looking to improve your understanding of health and safety, demonstrate your commitment to employee wellbeing, and protect your business from prosecution? Learn essential skills in effective risk management, including how to create a COVID-secure workplace, with this one-day course for business owners, senior managers and directors.

15th December 2020 | 09:30 – 16:30

Director of Health & Safety Services

Nick Wilson

Health and safety should be a priority for any business but ensuring compliance can often feel like a daunting task. We’re here to help you turn complex regulations into sensible, proportionate controls.

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