Last reviewed 1 December 2016

Justin Tyas examines a case in which a worker was fatally crushed by a refuse collection vehicle (RCV). Two companies were ordered to pay £840,000 in fines and costs after pleading guilty to health and safety breaches.

A considerable variety of machinery and work equipment is used in the waste management and recycling industry including compactors, bailers, conveyers, collection vehicles and lifting equipment. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) notes that every year many serious and sometimes fatal accidents occur, because of poorly guarded equipment or incorrect use including unsafe repair and maintenance, and activities.

According to the HSE, during the five-year period to the end of 2014/15, the incident rate of self-reported injury in the waste sector was around twice that of the all-industry rate. The fatal injury rate for the same period fluctuated, but was between around 5 and 20 times the all-industry average.

Accident

A fatal accident occurred during an operation to refurbish an RCV for a waste company at the site of a blacksmith and welding company. An operator was using the controls within the RCV’s cab and closed the tailgate. The system was designed such that it should not have been possible to completely close the tailgate using the in-cab controls, with a minimum gap of 1m being left between the bottom edges of the body and the tailgate.

However, a fault with the vehicle’s safety limit switch allowed the tailgate to completely close, as the switch in the cab had become jammed. A worker who was at the rear of the vehicle was fatally crushed as it closed.

Statutory requirements

The Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 (HSWA) places general duties on employers (and others) to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees (and others affected by work activities) so far as is reasonably practicable. This includes the duty regarding the provision and maintenance of safe plant and safe systems of work. The broad duties under the HSWA (such as s.6: General duties of manufacturers, etc as regards articles and substances for use at work) are usually made more explicit by subsequent health and safety legislation, which is often made under the HSWA.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 lay out in more detail what employers need to do to manage health and safety at work. The main requirement is for employers to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment to ensure risks are adequately controlled.

The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) apply to anyone who has control or responsibility for work equipment. The HSE has issued an Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) and guidance to assist dutyholders comply with these regulations. There is some overlap between PUWER and other sets of regulations including the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER).

The key regulations under PUWER include the following.

  • Regulation 4: Suitability of work equipment, in that the equipment should be suitable for use, and for the purpose and conditions in which it is to be used.

  • Regulation 5: Maintenance, ie maintained in a safe condition for use.

  • Regulation 6: Inspection, so that the equipment is inspected in certain circumstances by a competent person, with records kept until the next inspection.

  • Regulation 7: Specific risks, ie equipment giving rise to specific risks is restricted to those given the task of using and also repairing, maintaining it, etc.

  • Regulation 8: Information and instructions, in that adequate information and instruction must be provided.

  • Regulation 9: Training.

  • Regulation 11: Dangerous parts of machinery, which covers guarding and preventing access to dangerous parts.

  • Regulation 12: Protection against specific hazards.

  • Regulations 14 to 18 concern the requirements for controls, stopping work equipment, emergency stops and control systems.

  • Regulation 22: Maintenance operations, which concerns the design of equipment to ensure safe maintenance is completed to meet regulation 5.

  • Regulations 23 and 24, regarding the respective Markings and Warnings required for work equipment.

Breaches

The waste company pleaded guilty to breaching s.3(1) of the HSWA and regulation 6(2) of PUWER. It was fined £750,000 with £11,981 costs. The blacksmith and welding company pleaded guilty to breaching s.2(1) of the HSWA and was fined £65,000 with £12,443 costs.

Section 3(1) of the HSWA states: “It shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety.”

Regulation 6(2) of PUWER states: “Every employer shall ensure that work equipment exposed to conditions causing deterioration which is liable to result in dangerous situations is inspected:

(a) at suitable intervals; and

(b) each time that exceptional circumstances which are liable to jeopardise the safety of the work equipment have occurred,

to ensure that health and safety conditions are maintained and that any deterioration can be detected and remedied in good time.”

Section 2(1) of HSWA states: “It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.”

Failings

The accident was investigated by the HSE, which found a number of significant failings including the following.

  • The blacksmith and welding company had poor systems of work, which derived from lack of suitable and sufficient risk assessments. This included failure to adequately prop the tailgate.

  • The waste company failed in its inspection regime. In particular, it did not systematically review the functionality of the critical 1m safety limit switch (a designated safety device) on relevant RCVs.

  • Had the critical safety limit switch been identified and then rectified through suitable maintenance by the waste company, the poor system of work by the blacksmith and welding company would not have resulted in the tailgate closing and fatally crushing the worker.

Lessons learned

This fatal accident was entirely preventable. Organisations have a duty to inspect and maintain manufacture-stated safety-critical devices on work equipment. This tragic case highlights the need for effective communication between all parties. In this instance, there was a failure by the waste company to include the RCVs’ safety-critical devices in its maintenance regimes. This resulted in an inability to disseminate information to the third-party blacksmith and welding company about their presence and condition.

This case also highlights the need for robust safe systems of work, based on effective risk assessment. Safe systems of work are developed by a process of firstly recognising the significant hazards which are applicable, then subjecting each hazard to a risk assessment process. The result of the risk assessment process is the detail used to develop a safe system of work. They are designed to standardise working practices in order to ensure that no-one gets injured. Once developed, they should be rigorously implemented.