10 November 2014 by Will Date

Sterecycle fined £500,000 over ‘preventable’ worker death

Failed autoclave specialist Sterecycle (Rotherham) Limited has been found guilty of corporate manslaughter and fined £500,000 following the death of an employee at the firm’s plant in South Yorkshire in January 2011.

42-year-old worker Michael Whinfrey died as a result of head injuries sustained during an explosion at the firm’s 100,000 tonnes-per-year capacity waste processing plant, which was caused when a door to one of the autoclaves failed and blew out under pressure.

Sterecycle’s Rotherham autoclave

Sterecycle’s Rotherham autoclave

A joint investigation, conducted by South Yorkshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive, found that the explosion resulted from the failure of a screw connection to the autoclave locking ring, which secured the door to the machine.

The company was found guilty of corporate manslaughter at Sheffield Crown Court on Friday (November 7) following a month-long trial. Sterecycle’s former maintenance manager, Kevin Goss, operations director, Paul Greenwell and operations manager, Steven Weaver, were earlier acquitted of corporate manslaughter charges (see letsrecycle.com story).

Sterecycle ceased operations in October 2012 after having been placed into administration. It is unclear how much of the £500,000 fine will be recovered, with financial reports filed in August by the firm’s administrator Mazars showing that Sterecycle’s creditors had been paid around 28p of every £1 owed, with losses totalling more than £3 million (see letsrecycle.com story).

The Sheffield Road plant in Rotherham operated using two 50,000 tonnes per year capacity autoclave pressure chambers, which were used to heat household and business waste. The facility produced a soil like product which could be used as a growing media or in combined heat and power plants.

According to South Yorkshire Police, its investigation into the explosion at the site revealed that Sterecycle had had longstanding issues with the doors to the autoclave chambers that were “clearly not rectified properly and safely.”

‘Systematic failings’

Detective Sergeant Rob Platts, who lead the investigation for South Yorkshire Police, said: “I am pleased with the verdict reached today as it recognises the systemic failings of a company who had a duty of care to its employees.

“The company was aware of a longstanding issue with the autoclave doors and made no effort to repair the problem properly, putting the lives of their employees at risk. Because of the company’s inexcusable neglect, a man lost his life in a completely avoidable incident.

“After nearly four long years, Mr Whinfrey’s family can finally begin to put this painful ordeal behind them and move forward with their lives. They finally have the truth about his death and I hope the verdict reached today brings them some small amount of peace.”

HSE Inspector Carol Downes accused Sterecycle of “lacking competence” in the operation of steam pressured autoclave systems.

Competence

Speaking following the verdict on Friday, she said: “Sterecycle (Rotherham) Ltd didn’t properly understand the risks of, and lacked the competence in, operating steam pressure autoclave systems.

“Modifications were made to the autoclaves without adequately considering the effect on the equipment; safety devices were removed because they slowed production; and when breakdowns occurred ‘running repairs’ were made without ever getting to the root cause of the problems. Employees were inadequately trained and felt in genuine fear for their safety at the site. The view was taken that production should be maintained at all costs.”

She added: “This lethal combination all came together on 11 January 2011, resulting in the tragic death of Michael Whinfrey and a colleague receiving life-changing injuries. Other employees and members of the public were also put at risk.

“This terrible incident was entirely preventable. The clear standards and strict inspection regimes set out in the regulations were totally neglected by the company.”

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