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June 17, 2011

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Mine managers acquitted owing to lack of HSE evidence

Two colliery managers who were being prosecuted in relation to the death of a mine-worker had the charges against them dropped two weeks into the trial because the HSE did not have sufficient evidence to continue the case.

John Alstead and Terence Davison, both in their fifties, held the positions of manager and assistant under-manager, respectively, at Daw Mill colliery, near Coventry, on 19 June 2006.
On that day, 46-year-old foreman Trevor Steeples was working in an area of the mine 700m underground, when he was overcome by methane gas. Despite the efforts of his fellow mine-workers to get to him and then bring him out of the pit, Mr Steeples died at the scene.

The men were being prosecuted alongside their employer, UK Coal Mining Ltd, which, as well as the death of Mr Steeples, faced charges over the deaths of three other men in separate incidents. The company is currently awaiting sentencing.

Prosecuting for the HSE, Rex Tedd QC told the jury at Sheffield Crown Court that the death “followed from the fact that, for weeks before, shift after shift, there had been unacceptably high levels of methane gas and unacceptably low levels of oxygen” in the mine. He added that the affected areas of the mine had “simply been fenced off” and the men continued to work in other areas.

Mr Alstead and Mr Davison were charged under section 7 of the HSWA 1974 for failing to take reasonable care for the health and safety of others affected by their acts or omissions. In addition, Mr Alstead faced a charge under s55 of the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 for failing to secure adequate ventilation around the relevant part of the mine, while Mr Davison was charged with breaching reg.5 of the Management and Administration of Health and Safety in Mines Regulations 1993 for failing to prevent an interruption of ventilation.

The HSE had alleged that the men had failed to plan and manage the work properly on the day of the incident, but the court heard that they were not aware of the high build-up of methane on that day. None of the witnesses for the prosecution, in giving evidence, was critical of either of the defendants.

The jury in the trial, which was slated to last 10 weeks, was disbanded just over two weeks in, on 14 June, by the judge, who told the jury: “It won’t have escaped your notice that these two defendants were remote from what I will call the proximate causes of Mr Steeples’ death.”

He also made it clear that the prosecution had made the decision to abandon the trial and that the agreed with this decision.

In a statement, the HSE said that, on legal advice, it had “decided to offer no further evidence in the prosecution of Terence Davison and John Alstead. However, the prosecution of UK Coal in relation to the deaths of four men, including Trevor Steeples, in separate underground incidents at its collieries in the Midlands, is ongoing. HSE will not comment further until it concludes.”

UK Coal has pleaded guilty to charges under section 2(1) of the HSWA 1974 in relation to the deaths of mine-workers Paul Hunt (on 6 August 2006, at Daw Mill), Paul Milner (on 3 November 2007, at Welbeck colliery, in Meden Vale) and Trevor Steeples. It has also entered a guilty plea under section 3(1) of the same Act in relation to the death of contractor’s mine-worker Anthony Garrigan on 17 January 2007, also at Daw Mill. The firm is likely to be sentenced in the autumn.

Last  year, bosses at UK Coal received reduced annual bonus payments because two other deaths, in 2009, meant health and safety targets for that year were not met.

Mr Alstead and Mr Davison said the decision to drop the case was the right one. But a leading health and safety lawyer believes the long delay between the incident and the trial will make it difficult for them to rebuild their lives.

Paul Verrico, an associate with Eversheds, who was not involved in the case, told SHP: “The two men will officially leave court with their reputations intact and their heads held high, but the reality may well be different. They have been waiting for five years to have their day in court and the accusations against them were grave.

“While every death at work is a tragedy, holding individuals to account in all circumstances can sometimes be going too far when the evidence of neglect on the part of an individual is simply missing.”

He added that, in his experience, the HSE’s enforcement policy continues to be applied more rigorously in terms of individual liability, particularly in fatal cases.

Approaches to managing the risks associated Musculoskeletal disorders

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.

Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.

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