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Companies to pay £624k after ‘horrific’ woodchip recycling deaths

Companies to pay £624k after ‘horrific’ woodchip recycling deaths
The Sonae Industria plant in Knowsley
A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector has called the 2010 deaths of two workers at a site operated by the UK’s largest recycler of wood waste at the time ‘the most horrific case’ he has seen.

Two companies, chipboard manufacturer Sonae Industria (UK) and equipment specialist Valment Ltd, have been made to pay a total of £624,000 following the deaths of the two men, which occurred when they were dragged into woodchipping machinery at Sonae’s plant in Knowsley, Merseyside.

James Bibby, 25, and Thomas Elmer, 27, both from Rossendale, were both killed while carrying out maintenance on a conveyor belt at the factory.  

Liverpool Crown Court heard than on 7 December 2010, five years ago today, Elmer, employed by Metso Paper Ltd and Bibby, a self-employed contractor for Metso, had been asked to replace a worn sprocket on a conveyor belt at Sonae’s Merseyside plant.

While the two were carrying out the work, the conveyor suddenly started to operate, dragging both men into a large shredding silo. The court heard that this caused ‘catastrophic fatal injuries’.

The Knowsley plant closed in 2012, after long delays in obtaining planning approval for the site’s reconstruction following a fire in June 2011. In August 2011 a demolition worker, James Dennis Kay, was killed while operating a cherry picker to remove the facility’s roof, damaged by the fire two months earlier.

Prior to its closure, 220 people had been employed at the site, which opened in 2000. Work at the site had seen Sonae become the UK’s largest recycler of wood waste.

‘Many failings’

The court heard how there was no emergency stop button on the conveyor belt and that the line could start on its own on a signal from a computer if it were not first isolated from its power source.

The HSE investigation determined that both Sonae and Metso had failed to properly assess the risks associated with the work that the two men were carrying out.

Among Sonae Industria (UK)’s ‘many failings’ were not properly assessing the risks associated with the work or sharing them with the contractors, not having a proper process in place for managing contractors or a procedure for isolating dangerous machinery and failing to train workers or check their competence.

The company pleaded guilty to breaching Section Three of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA), which concerns the safety of non-employees on site, and was fined £220,000 with additional costs of £107,000.

Metso Ltd was taken over by Valmet Ltd in 2013. Valmet was prosecuted for failing to ensure the site that its workers were visiting had sufficient risk assessments and processes in place. The investigation also concluded that the company had not adequately trained its contractors for the tasks that they were to carry out at Sonae.

Valmet also pleaded guilty to breaching Section Three of the HSWA, as well as Section Two, which concerns general duties for employee safety. It was fined £190,000 with additional costs of £107,000.

‘Most horrific case’

HSE’s Principal Inspector Mike Sebastian 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.”

Rosanna Hesketh, Thomas Elmer’s sister, said: “The complete disregard for any health and safety protocol that Sonae and Metso should have followed has not only robbed me of my brother, my parents of their son but my children of their only maternal uncle.”

Bev Bibby, James Bibby’s mother, 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.”

Dangers of waste and resources sector

The waste and recycling industry has been branded as one of the most dangerous to work in, and figures released by HSE in July revealed that 11 people, including six members of the public were fatally injured in the waste and resources sector in 2014/15.

This number constitutes a 120 per cent increase on the number of deaths reported in 2013/14, and the rise has largely been due to an increase in the number of members of the public being fatally injured at waste sites or by waste machinery.

In 2013, the body published the ‘Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) blueprint 2012-15’ to outline ‘immediate action points’ that employers can take to provide clearer training and safer workplaces.

It has also released guidance on how companies with sites accessed by both pedestrians and vehicles can ensure they are kept safe for people using the area.

Read HSE’s ‘Statistics on fatal injuries in the workplace in Great Britain 2015’.

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