Don’t leave it to chance

In March 2015 Peter Rowan was working as a site manger on a project to upgrade Tarporley wastewater treatment works in Cheshire. The project involved a new machine being installed which would remove solid objects from liquid sewage using a large auger (screw) device.

Rowan was expecting a specialist contractor to come to the site to commission the machine; in fact, the contractor had already been paid for the job. However, when the contractor failed to arrive, Rowan and a software engineer took on the task themselves.

The machine included a long rotating screw mounted horizontally inside the chamber, the machine started without warning and as the screw turned his foot was caught in it. The injury was so severe that Rowan had to have three toes amputated.

Rowan had no experience of commissioning this type of equipment and lacked the detailed information which would have been available to the specialist contractor. Rowan had undertaken the task based on his experience and intuition, however the complexity of the equipment proved his knowledge was insufficient.

In court Costain Ltd and Galliford Try Building Ltd were two members of the consortium responsible or the upgrade project an both parties were charged with failing to adequately plan or manage the work.

Both pleaded not guilty but were convicted of breaching s.3(1) Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
They were each fined £1.4 million plus costs of £50,000.

Although the accident occurred in a relatively unusual environment, it illustrates a problem which is common to many businesses: when an employee appears highly practical and able to fix almost anything it is very tempting to allow them to work on their intuition without oversight.

This freedom in decision making is especially common where a staff member has a practical role and their manager is either located on another site or immersed in other day-to-day matters.

As employer (or as in this case, principal contractor) you retain responsibility for safe methods of work. Allowing full autonomy can backfire.

When purchasing new machinery, arrange for the installation and commissioning to be carried out correctly. Ensure that staff understand how much of the job they are allowed to do and at what point they must stop and wait for a specialist contractor.

When purchasing new equipment speak with the supplier to check necessary training requirements. They will often be able to provide a trainer to help with safe introduction of the machine.

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