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October 22, 2009

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Director admits responsibility for poor machine guarding

A company director has been fined £10,000 for failing to ensure that two machines were sufficiently guarded at a pet-food manufacturing plant in Northampton.

Butcher’s Pet Care Ltd’s operations director, Philip Thompson, appeared at Northampton Crown Court on 12 October and pleaded guilty to breaching reg.11(1) of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998, for failing to take effective measures as a director to prevent access to dangerous parts of machinery. In addition to his fine, he was ordered to pay £4000 in costs. The company will appear in court for sentencing on 5 November.

The charges related to the death of one of the firm’s employees, John O’Connor, on 17 November 2003. Mr O’Connor was operating a palletiser machine, which stacks cans of pet food into several rows on wooden pallets. As part of the process, the pallets are fed into the bottom of the machine and then lifted into position by a hoist, so the cans can be dropped into place.

During this process, one of the pallets became misaligned as it was being fed into the machine, which caused a blockage. An interlock system was meant to prevent access to the blocked area, but Mr O’Connor entered the caged area through a gap in the fence, which had been common practice at the site. He leant over the pallet and re-positioned it, which caused the machine to re-start. This caused the hoist to raise, trapping his chest against a steal beam at the top of the machine. He was unable to free himself and died from asphyxiation as a result of serious crush injuries.

The HSE visited the site the following day and issued a Prohibition Notice on the machine until the gap in the fence was repaired. A second Prohibition Notice was issued against an identical machine at the factory, which was missing keys that activate the interlock system.

HSE Principal Inspector, Neil Craig, revealed that there was a number of complications that delayed the case from reaching court at an earlier date. He told SHP: “The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was originally considering bringing manslaughter charges against Mr Thompson, as he was personally responsible for site safety at the factory. After looking at the evidence for two and a half years the CPS decided against bringing these charges. An inquest was concluded in July 2007, which enabled the HSE to pursue the safety charges.”

In mitigation, Thompson said he had no previous convictions and deeply regretted the incident. Under his guidance the firm has subsequently complied with both Prohibition Notices and a safe interlock system is now in place on both machines.

Principal Inspector Craig added: “This tragic loss of life could have been so easily avoided had Mr Thompson properly fulfilled his duties as a director.

“This was far from being an isolated incident. The unfenced gap between the stair rails had been there for nearly two years and it had become common practice for employees to nip through it to fix problems on the machine in an effort to keep the production line running, anyone of whom could have suffered the same fate as Mr O’Connor.

“This level of fine should serve as a stark warning to company directors to take their responsibilities for health and safety seriously and to reinforce the message that they cannot hide behind the organisation.”

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