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South Lakeland council fined £120,000 for rubbish truck deaths

South Lakeland District Council has been fined £120,000 for safety failings and ordered to pay £50,000 in prosecution costs after two women were killed by reversing rubbish trucks in one year.

Incident details

South Lakeland council fined £120,000 for rubbish truck deaths

Carlisle Crown Court heard that, on 2 June 2010, 54-year-old Mary Cook was struck by a reversing vehicle when walking down a single-track lane off Easedale Road in Grasmere. She later died from her injuries.

The driver of the truck pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving in a separate prosecution, but when investigating the case, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that it was normal practice for the 7.5-tonne bin lorries to reverse down the track without a colleague walking behind, guiding the driver.

As such, HSE advised the council to review all its bin collection rounds to eliminate reversing whenever possible, or to make sure employees guided drivers from behind vehicles when there was no other option but to reverse.

On 17 March 2011, council employee Dorothy Harkes, 58, from Ulverston, was walking behind a rubbish truck to guide the driver who was reversing onto school grounds at St Mary’s School on Prince’s Road in Windermere.

Harkes was then struck by the vehicle, causing fatal injuries. The driver of the vehicle was convicted of causing death by careless driving.

However, HSE concluded that the council was also at fault, as – despite the proper practice being used (having an employee guide a reversing vehicle) – reversing was not necessary at this location. Indeed, it found that the council had previously been collecting waste from outside the school gates before it changed its system so that the truck reversed onto the ground to collect the rubbish.

‘Council had not done all it should have to protect the public and employees’

HSE’s Principal Inspector for Cumbria and North Lancashire, Mark Dawson, commented: “Both the drivers have already admitted their part in Mary and Dorothy’s deaths, but our investigation found the council had not done all it should have to protect the public and their employees from the danger of reversing rubbish trucks.

“The lane that Mary Cook and her husband had been walking along was heavily used by holidaymakers and yet the council failed to make sure measures were in place so that its vehicles could reverse safely.

“What’s particularly disappointing is that the council actually introduced reversing as part of its collection of recycling waste from St Mary’s School, rather than trying to eliminate it wherever possible following Mary’s death.”

As such, HSE began legal proceedings against the council for failing to tackle the risks from reversing vehicles. On Friday (13 February), Carlisle Crown Court fined the council £120,000 and ordered it to pay £50,000 in prosecution costs after it pleaded guilty to failing to ensure that its employees and others are not exposed to risks to their health or safety.

Waste sector ‘one of the most dangerous’

Injuries and deaths in the waste sector are not uncommon, and the HSE has branded the industry as ‘one of the most dangerous’ sectors to work in. Worryingly, there was an upsurge in incidents in 2012/13 despite concerted efforts to make the waste and recycling industry safer, with 10 workers and three members of the public suffering fatal injuries, compared with an average of six deaths in the previous five years.

Further, the executive has found that vehicles at work are a major cause of serious and fatal injuries, with more than 5,000 incidents involving transport in the workplace occurring each year. About 50 of these incidents result in deaths. Information on the safe use of workplace vehicles can be accessed via the HSE website.

HSE has also published a ‘Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) blueprint 2012-15’ that outlines 24 ‘immediate action points’ that companies dealing with waste and recycling need to take to provide clearer training and safer workplaces.

Find out more about the WISH blueprint.

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