£450,000 site death fine upheld

Posted: 24th April 2013

craneA building company which was convicted of an offence under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 following the death of a labourer who fell through a construction site roof within 10 minutes of starting his new job has failed to convince the Court of Appeal that the £450,000 fine imposed was excessive.

The company was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive after the labourer fell 17 feet through a hole covered by a piece of plywood. He suffered brain damage, hearing loss and partial blindness and died more than two years after the accident from meningitis arising from his injuries.

The company had responsibility for managing and overseeing the site and, following conviction at the Crown Court, was fined £450,000 and ordered to pay £98,000 in prosecution costs. The accident was said by the trial judge to have arisen from a ‘serious breakdown in the chain of command’ which resulted in the company’s employees failing to ensure that the hole was properly fenced and secured.

On appeal, the company’s lawyers submitted that sub-contractors on the site bore some of the responsibility for the accident and that the fine was manifestly excessive. However, in dismissing the appeal, the court noted that the hole was in the nature of a ‘trap’ for the unwary, that the risk faced by the labourer had been ‘huge’ and that his fall was in many ways ‘an accident waiting to happen’.

The court ruled: "It was the appellant’s employees who carried out the work and it was their employees who failed to ensure that, before they left the site, it had been left secure. The appellants were directly involved in creating the circumstances which led to this tragic death. They must accept a significant measure of responsibility."

Observing that the company has a workforce of around 300 and is in a substantial way of business, the court ruled that the financial penalty was justified. Although the incident was a single lapse and there was no suggestion that corners had been cut, the court concluded: "The appellant’s culpability was high and a man died".