Food firm to pay £230,000 over two guard-overriding incidents
A large international food-processing company has been hit with fines totalling £230,000, following two incidents where machinery guards had been deliberately overridden, leading to serious injuries to a supervisor and a forklift-truck driver.
Norwich Crown Court, sitting on 25 October, imposed the fines on 2 Sisters Food Group after the incidents at its factory in Flixton, South Norfolk.
Julie Jarvey, the HSE inspector who investigated the case, explained to SHP that the factory dealt with the whole process from receipt of live chickens, through to slaughter, preparing and packing them, ready to be sent out to supermarkets.
In the first incident, on 1 December 2009, night-shift cleaning and hygiene supervisor Shaun Alexander, 42, had been helping a member of his team clean a machine that crushed chicken feet into fine particles to be used in animal feed.
“Part of the machine was driven by two rotating cogs, the fixed guarding over which had been removed so that chicken debris could be cleaned out,” the inspector explained. “It had been custom and practice at the firm to leave the machine running while the operatives cleaned it, but it should have been isolated when the guard was removed.”
Mr Alexander’s right hand was pulled into the cogs and crushed, causing four fingers, part of his thumb and some of his palm to be amputated.
In the second incident, a few weeks later on 11 January 2010, forklift driver Malcolm Raven, 54, suffered a broken arm. The court heard that he had been left in charge of a lairage, where live birds were held before being offloaded into crates and transported via conveyor to an outflow system, which was guarded by an interlocked mesh-fence enclosure. The guard had been permanently overridden with a bypass device.
Inspector Jarvey explained that the crates of chickens frequently jammed in the enclosure. The custom was for operatives to enter the enclosure while the machinery was still powered, using a pole, or their hands, to jiggle the crates in an attempt to unblock them. While doing exactly this, Mr Raven’s arm was pulled into the machine, trapped, and broken.
2 Sisters Food Group, based in West Bromwich, pleaded guilty to two breaches of s2(1) of HSWA 1974 by failing to ensure the safety of its employees. It was fined £90,000 for the offence regarding Shaun Alexander and £140,000 for that concerning Malcolm Raven. It was also ordered to pay full costs of £24,302.
Inspector Jarvey commented: “Both these incidents were wholly avoidable. Shaun Alexander was failed by the company’s lack of proper training, inadequate assessment of risks, absence of safe working practices, and [lack of] effective measures stopping access to dangerous equipment. He will have to live with the consequences of someone else’s mistakes for the rest of his life.
She added: “Malcolm Raven’s injuries could have been much more serious. Similar failings were shown up in his case, made worse by the fact that he hadn’t been properly trained for a task that was outside his normal working duties.”
In sentencing the case, Judge Peter Jacobs said: “The only control measures the company had in place were safety rules requiring operatives to keep hoses clear of moving parts. No suitable instruction had been given in dealing with the wedged items. There were no provisions to ensure that the machine was properly isolated.”
The company said in mitigation that Mr Alexander may have been negligent. It had done all it could to rehabilitate him, had a good safety record, and made genuine efforts to remedy the defect. The judge did not conclude that Mr Alexander was negligent but said: “The whole purpose of guarding is to ensure that employees, negligent or not, do not come into contact with moving machinery.”
The judge commented that the process in the second incident involved such force that it is vital the machine is guarded, or gated, especially as the ramming and movement on the conveyor belt is computer-controlled and sometimes unpredictable.
Matters were further aggravated by the company having a previous conviction for a similar incident at a factory in Stowmarket, which resulted in a £95,000 fine.
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