A fatal incident at a Merseyside woodchip factory – described by one HSE inspector as his “most horrific case” – has seen two firms ordered to pay combined costs of £624,000.
Portuguese-owned Sonae Industria (UK) Ltd and equipment specialist Valmet Ltd, which took over Metso Ltd in 2013, were sentenced at Liverpool Crown Court on Friday over the deaths of two workers at the Knowsley plant in 2010.
James Bibby, 25, and 27-year-old Thomas Elmer, were both killed while carrying out maintenance work on a conveyor belt at the Sonae factory five years ago today.
The Court heard how Mr Elmer, employed at the time by Metso Paper Ltd, and Mr Bibby, a self-employed contractor for the same company, had been asked to replace part of a conveyor belt.
During the course of the procedure, the conveyor suddenly and unexpectedly started to operate – dragging both men into the machinery and causing ‘catastrophic’ fatal injuries.
An investigation launched by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) found multiple failings by both companies to properly assess the risks associated with the work both men were carrying out.
Sonae’s failings included not carrying out a proper risk assessment, not having in place a proper process for managing contractors or a procedure for isolating dangerous machinery, and failing to train or check the competence of workers.
It was fined £220,000 with costs of £107,000 after pleading guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Valmet Ltd was prosecuted for Metso Ltd’s failure to ensure the site its workers were visiting had sufficient risk assessments and processes in place. It also failed to ensure its workers and contractors had adequate training for the tasks or provided with necessary information on the work they were being asked to perform.
Valmet was fined £190,000 with costs of £107,000, having also pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Following the case, Rosanna Hesketh, Mr Elmer’s sister and Bev Bibby, Mr Bibby’s mother, led impassioned tributes to the two men and criticised Sonae and Metso’s ‘complete disregard’ for health and safety.
Mrs Bibby said: “My younger son works in the same industry and faces everyday doing the same job, knowing his brother died because of someone else’s negligence. I worry every day history will repeat itself. I don’t think we, my son and I, will ever get over James’ death.”
This is perhaps the most horrific case I have ever had to deal with and has had a devastating effect on both families.Mike Sebastian
HSE principal inspector
HSE principal inspector Mike Sebastian described the case as perhaps the most horrific he had ever had to deal with.
He said: “James Bibby and Thomas Elmer should not have died. This is perhaps the most horrific case I have ever had to deal with and has had a devastating effect on both families. Carrying out straightforward risk assessments is about protecting workers from serious harm, suffering life-changing injuries or, in this tragic case, death.
“If both companies had put in place the simple steps to protect their workers’ safety these two young men would still be with us today.”
The Sonae plant, which closed its gates in 2012, provided a market for around 400,000 tonnes of waste woodchip a year.
In August 2011, demolition worker James Dennis Kay lost his life at the plant while operating a cherry picker crane. He had been removing a 40-foot roof damaged during a large fire at the facility that same year (see letsrecycle.com story).
When contacted by letsrecycle.com, Sonae declined to comment on Friday’s sentencing.
A statement issued by Valmet reads: “Valmet values its employees and contractors and their safety is the highest priority. We deeply regret the tragic accident at the Sonae mill in 2010. Both Valmet and Sonae Industria (UK) Ltd have accepted their collective failures in this regard and have entered guilty pleas in proceedings brought by the UK Health and Safety Executive.
“Since the accident, Valmet has implemented several actions further to ensure that safe systems of work are in place wherever it operates. Our thoughts are still with the families, friends and colleagues affected by the tragedy.”