Nechells recycling firm directors guilty of safety failures over wall collapse

Company directors at a Nechells recycling plant where five men were crushed to death by a collapsing wall have been convicted of serious health and safety offences.

In July 2016 a wall collapsed at the site in Nechells, Birmingham, crushing five workers to death

The workers were left with no chance of survival when the 45-tonne structure fell without warning in an incident which shocked the city.

Wayne Hawkeswood and Graham Woodhouse and the firms they ran – Hawkeswood Metal Recycling and Ensco 10101 – known as Shredmet – were to blame for the precarious state of the unsafe 3.6m high wall that came crashing down on top of the workers.

The victims, all fathers, lost their lives in the horror incident in July 2016, leaving their widows and children bereft and fighting for justice. During the trial it was heard the wall was constructed without expert input or risk assessment. Bosses at the firms worked by ‘best guess’ only as to how to safely store materials against the wall.

Legal representatives for the companies and directors had sought to convince the jury the incident was indeed a ‘terrible tragedy’ but an accident that could not have been foreseen.

However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said it was avoidable. Describing it as one of the HSE’s most difficult and complex investigations, lead inspector Amy Kalay said after the case: “Had the companies and directors taken responsibility for managing health and safety at this site these men would still be here today.”

Victims

The five who died were Ousmane Kaba Diaby, 39, Saibo Sumbundu Sillah, 42, Bangally Tunkara Dukuray, 55, Almamo Kinteh Jammeh, 45 and Mahamadou Jagana Jagana, 49. All were agency workers of African heritage, living in Birmingham or nearby.

The concrete wall of a bay storing hundreds of tonnes of metal ingots was involved in the accident in Birmingham in 2016

The men, all migrant workers seeking a better life in England for themselves and their young families, were tasked with clearing a bay of swarf material with shovels and forks alongside a supervisor in a Bobcat vehicle at the site, off Aston Church Road, on the morning of the incident.

They were just a few minutes away from completing the task when the wall collapsed, with no warning. A video taken from an on-site camera captured the moment the wall collapsed.

The grainy footage shows figures moving in and around the bay when suddenly the wall towering over them buckles and falls on top of them. Some of the metal ingots being stored against it spill on top.

They did not have ‘any real chance of survival’, said prosecutor Pascal Bates, for the HSE. A sixth man, Tombong Camarah Conteh, suffered a broken leg in the tragedy.

Charges

Two companies were named in the charges because in May, shortly before the incident, Hawkeswood Metal Recycling had changed its name to Shredmet Ltd, now known as Ensco 10101, though directors Mr Hawkeswood and Mr Woodhouse were the same.

Each company faced two health and safety offences while Mr Hawkeswood, 52, and Mr Woodhouse, 55, faced two further charges in respect of each company alleging they had been ‘consenting, conniving or negligent’ in respect of the health and safety failings.

All defendants gave their address as Riverside Works, Trevor Street, Nechells, and had denied the allegations.

Bay

The court had heard the bay wall that fell was built by staff, following a basic diagram instruction, without expert advice or an assessment by a structural engineer. There was no risk assessment carried out about how much material could be safely stored against it. “That would have prevented this incident from happening,” said Ms Kalay after the case.

The five men had been clearing a bay of swarf material when the wall toppled over (picture: BPM Media)

At the tragic moment the dividing wall – made up of 30 concrete blocks, each as big as a fridge – toppled on them. The neighbouring bay contained 263 tonnes of scrap metal briquettes – equal to six fully loaded articulated lorries – and some of the contents also spilled.

Experts in the case ‘agreed the wall was close to toppling over and a very slight effect could have put it over’ – with one suggesting a mere ‘gust of wind’ would have been sufficient.

‘Decidedly unsafe’

Barristers for the company and directors said they had to ‘best guess’ how to safely pile and store the metal briquettes in the bay due to a lack of clear industry guidance. They had used the services of a health and safety consultant more generally in their business and he had not alerted them to potential risks around loads butting up to the walls. The industry as a whole was ignorant of the dangers, they claimed.

The wall was decidedly unsafe and no-one should have been working anywhere near it
– Pascal Bates, HSE prosecutor

They went on to tell the jury the wall collapse was a “terrible accident” that had cast “a dark shadow” but was not foreseeable. “Not every tragedy means someone is to blame. In life serious accidents happen.”

But Mr Bates said – and the jury ultimately agreed: “Whatever straw finally broke this camel’s back is neither here nor there. The wall was decidedly unsafe and no-one should have been working anywhere near it.”

Birmingham Crown Court

The case was heard over seven weeks at Birmingham Crown Court where the jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts earlier on 18 November. Mr Hawkeswood and Mr Woodhouse did not give evidence during the trial, which drew heavily on expert witnesses in construction, engineering and the safe disposal of metal and other heavy waste alongside the testimony of witnesses to the incident and its aftermath. The incident had previously been subject of an inquest which ruled the men had died accidentally.

Judge Derek Sweeting QC, summing up, had told the jury that tragically the men were probably ‘five minutes or so’ away from finishing the project when the wall came down. Sentencing will take place on a date next year which is yet to be confirmed.

Copy provided by Carl Jackson/Jane Hayes/BPM Media.

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