Slips, suffocation and dangerous substances | February’s top health and safety fines
February can be a slow month for some, but unfortunately in the world of health and safety, it was business as usual.
From seemingly ‘trivial’ incidents to the tragic loss of life, last month provided further evidence of just how costly, and indeed how devastating, health and safety failings can be.
In some, the risk was underestimated and issues overlooked. In others, there was a blatant disregard for the law. However, in all of these cases, one thing is for certain: harm could have been avoided through reasonably practicable measures.
February 2020 saw the following five high fines for health and safety failings.
1. Tesco fined £733k after shop floor slip-up
Supermarket giant Tesco topped the list of highest fines last month after an elderly customer slipped in store and broke his hip.
The previously fit and active 91-year-old was pushing his trolley in a meat produce aisle when he suddenly slipped on a pool of liquid. The liquid had leaked from refrigerator units and should have been able to drain away. However, floor drains were blocked by bacteria build-up. In trying to deal with the problem, Tesco had made holes in the floor after similar drainage problems were reported in the bakery. Unfortunately, this was not done for the drains in the meat aisles until after the slip incident.
Council investigators found that despite management systems being in place, Tesco had failed to either cure the underlying blockage or effectively deal with leaks from refrigeration units over an extended period. The problem had begun two months before the customer’s injury. While maintenance engineers visited the store several times, they did not deal with the drainage problem, other than using machines to suck up the watery liquid.
Shop floor workers had complained to managers but staff had been reduced to putting down flattened cardboard to try to soak up the leaks, which only introduced a further trip hazard.
Managers could have reduced the risk by:
- Turning off refrigeration units;
- Closing all or parts of the affected aisles; and
- Using barriers to restrict access.
While admitting guilt, Tesco did not accept the full extent of its offending. The company argued that it bore only a medium level of culpability, that the failures giving rise to the injury were local failures, and that there was not a high likelihood of injury from slipping by reason of its safety failures.
The judge nonetheless found that Tesco:
- Had been highly culpable;
- Repeatedly ignored reported maintenance issues that should have been addressed at area management level; and
- Knew there was a high likelihood of people slipping and sustaining injury.
Tesco pleaded guilty to breaching its duties under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 for failing to, as far is reasonably practicable, operate and manage its stores in ways that ensure customers and staff are not exposed to safety risks.
Tesco Stores Ltd was fined £733,333 with costs to be determined.
Dacorum Borough Council
2. Contractor fined £450k over fire safety failings at student flat
A building contractor was fined £450,000 after admitting fire safety failings at student flats it was responsible for designing and building. The firm was prosecuted along with developer, Trinity Developments, and managing and letting agent, Niche Homes, over what the fire service described as their “blatant disregard for the law and the safety of residents”.
The student halls were only open to a limited number of students as parts of the building were still under construction. However, the floor housing the students only had one available fire escape and this was found to be unsafe because combustible timber and bubble wrap was left on the stairway.
The court heard that a string of other failures contributed to a significant fire risk. The failings included a lack of appropriate fire alarms, exposed timber framing, and no markings showing fire escape routes.
The failings came to light after a concerned parent, who had been dropping his daughter off at the building, called the fire and rescue service to report the state of the building. Fire service inspectors discovered several breaches in legislation and issued a prohibition order, meaning students had to leave for their own safety.
APP Construction admitted failing to provide an adequate number of fire escape routes and exits under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. Trinity Developments and Niche Homes also admitted safety breaches under the Order, including failing to:
- Make a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment;
- Take precautions to make sure premises were safe from fire risk;
- Provide appropriate fire detection and alarm systems; and
- Provide an adequate number of fire escape routes and exits.
The judge described the situation as having the “potential for catastrophe”. He said all the companies had “high culpability” and that “the risks were so obvious that a member of the public spotted them – so they should have been obvious to the companies involved”.
APP Construction Ltd was fined £450,000, Trinity Developments Ltd £160,000 and Niche Homes Ltd £60,000. The three companies also agreed to pay prosecution costs. APP Construction will pay £9,000, Trinity Developments £6,000 and Niche Homes £6,000.
As the judge highlighted, the dangers and risks found were so obvious anyone without a technical fire safety background could identify them. The conditions that were found on site were such that some of our senior officers have not seen such blatant disregard for the law and the safety of residents in 28 years."
The Fire and Rescue Service
3. Engineering firm fined £160k after telegraph pole child fatality
An engineering firm was fined after a schoolboy suffocated when a 275kg telegraph pole rolled on top of him and pinned him against a fence.
The stricken child became trapped under the unsecured log that had been left dangerously close to an embankment. He was playing with friends when the tragedy struck.
The court heard that a driver working for the engineering firm had delivered two overhead power poles to a medical centre. However, the poles had been left unsecured at the top of a grass embankment. Just hours later, the youngster was standing on one of the two 10-metre poles when it became dislodged and rolled down the embankment.
CCTV footage showed the “experienced” driver left the poles in the wrong location near a slope rather than a flat field nearby. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) uncovered two distinct failings:
- Firstly, a failure to provide a safe system of work to make sure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the poles were delivered to the correct location and properly secured to prevent rolling.
- Secondly, a failure to provide suitable information, instruction and training to make sure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that employees delivering poles properly secured them so they could not roll.
SPIE Limited pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at work etc Act 1974. It was fined £160,000, reduced from £240,000 due to an early guilty plea.
Companies should be aware that HSE will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action against those that fall below the required standard "
4. Car retailer fined £120k after worker developed occupational asthma
A car body-sprayer developed occupational asthma after using paints that contained isocyanates without adequate control measures in place. Isocyanates are classed as substances hazardous to health and are therefore subject to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002.
HSE investigators found that the employee had for several years been spraying using paints containing isocyanates. The court heard that the employer failed to make sure adequate controls were in place to minimise exposure to isocyanates.
Controlling employee exposure to hazardous substances is a legal requirement on employers and the HSE provides guidance on how control can be achieved. Appropriate controls could include use of a spray booth to carry out the paint spraying, use of a suitable air-fed respirator, checks to ensure equipment was adequately maintained and training provided to ensure the employee knew the risks and how to control them.”
5. Flybe fined £100k after lift shaft fall
Collapsed airline Flybe was fined after an investigation into a worker’s lift shaft fall uncovered health and safety failings. The worker was moving a loaded airport hangar lift trolley when he fell to the bottom floor and suffered severe injuries.
The exact cause of the incident could not be established. However, HSE investigators found that the lift doors had a fault that meant they defaulted to locked. As a result, the emergency door release key was being routinely used by employees to bypass the fault and the lift’s safety devices.
Flybe Ltd pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay costs of £9,963.
The judge said the fine would have been higher but for the airline’s financial difficulties. The starting point for fining a company of Flybe’s size is typically £300,000 but this was reduced after the judge took into consideration the guilty plea, the company’s exemplary health and safety record and its co-operation with the HSE’s investigation.
Safeguard your business against rising fines
The penalties for health and safety breaches can make or break a business, as well as cause irreparable damage to your reputation. With the average fine sitting at an eye-watering £130,000, if you’re not confident that your premises and practices are safe and compliant, it pays to receive professional support to protect your organisation and your staff.
At Ellis Whittam, we’re experts at reducing risk. Our nationwide team of qualified Health & Safety Consultants provide a valuable source of dedicated advice and guidance on a on ongoing basis, helping you to identify sensible solutions, demonstrate compliance, and keep the regulator at bay.