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July 18, 2012

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Huge penalties imposed on two firms in coal-mining death case

UK Coal has been warned it must “demonstrate very robustly” that it will learn from the issues raised in the latest case against it for safety breaches that led to the death of a worker – its fifth such prosecution in as many years.

The company, of Harworth, Notts was ordered today (18 July) to pay a total of £418,000 in fines and costs for serious safety failings at Kellingley colliery in West Yorkshire, where pit worker Ian Cameron was crushed to death in October 2009.

Also sentenced at Leeds Crown Court was Joy Mining Machinery Ltd, of Worcester, which was fined a total of £150,000 in relation to the same incident. Both companies had pleaded guilty at earlier hearings to breaching the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974.

Leeds Crown Court was told that Mr Cameron, 46, died as a result of his injuries when a powered roof support (PRS) lowered spontaneously, crushing him against large amounts of debris that had accumulated within the walkway of the support. The PRS was one of several hundred supplied to UK Coal by Joy Mining, each weighing some 15 tonnes and designed to support 510 tonnes.

Mr Cameron, a face worker at Kellingley with 30 years’ experience, died in hospital shortly after the incident.

The court heard that a solenoid valve within the powered roof support had become worn and defective. The result was that hydraulic fluid was able to pass under pressure through a valve and cause the PRS canopy to descend without the control button being operated.

A similar solenoid malfunction on a PRS made by Joy had happened in Australia in 2008. The company issued a warning bulletin but failed to circulate it within the UK, or provide it to UK Coal; nor did Joy notify it of the incident until after Mr Cameron’s death.

A painstaking investigation by the HSE’s Mining Inspectorate found PRSs installed where Mr Cameron worked had been salvaged from another coal face at the mine and assessed by UK Coal as fit for transfer with limited maintenance. The solenoids on the PRSs were not rigorously tested.

From the outset of production in April 2009 the PRSs had numerous faults that were recorded but not corrected. They included burst hoses, faulty solenoids, and broken or defective parts. UK Coal was aware of the problems but regarded them as production issues rather than a significant risk to the safety of workers.  

On 18 October 2009, Mr Cameron was operating a PRS and a colleague was working separately nearby. More than two feet of broken stone debris had built up in the walking track, leaving just under 30 inches’ clearance between the top of the debris and the underside of the PRS canopy at full height.

Only a few hours into the shift, the hydraulic feed system had tripped out nine times, at least seven caused by a burst hose. Mid-morning, the colleague noticed Mr Cameron could not be seen but saw that a PRS had lowered. He disabled the machine and called a supervisor for help. Together they raised the PRS and found Mr Cameron face down under the canopy in a crawling position on top of the debris. Other miners swiftly came to help and he was taken to hospital but died soon after arrival. 

UK Coal Mining Ltd admitted failing to take steps to ensure the safety of workers using powered roof supports. It was fined £200,000 for breaching section 2(1) HSWA 1974, and ordered to pay £218,000 in costs. No further penalty was imposed for a breach of section 3(1) of the same Act.

Joy Mining Machinery (UK) had previously reached an agreed basis of plea with the HSE that formally acknowledged that while Joy inadvertently failed to distribute the service bulletin in the UK, there was no causative link between Joy’s mistake and the accident. On this basis, the company entered a guilty plea on 4 July and was fined £50,000 for breaching section 6(1)(d) of the HSWA 1974, plus £100,000 in costs.

After the hearing, HSE Principal Inspector of Mines Paul Bradley said: “HSE brought this case because of the serious safety failings uncovered during investigations. This is the fifth prosecution HSE has had to take against UK Coal in the past five years involving the deaths of five miners, each under very tragic circumstances.

“UK Coal disregarded the numerous warnings and frequent failures of the PRSs and failed to take effective measures to ensure the debris was removed and the walking track kept clear. The company needs to demonstrate very robustly that they will learn and act upon the many issues raised as a result of Mr Cameron’s death.”

Commenting on Joy Machinery’s failure to distribute the safety bulletin warning of the solenoid risks, PI Bradley said it amounted to “an error of quite staggering proportion and a serious failing in its duty of care”.

Mr Cameron’s widow Carol said she was glad justice had been done in the case, and thanked both the HSE and the National Union of Mineworkers for their assistance.

In a statement released after the sentence, UK Coal said: “We deeply regret any injury, or loss of life, which is felt deeply throughout our company; and our thoughts today are with the family and friends of Ian Cameron at this difficult time.

“The historic level of fatal accidents is totally unacceptable to the new management team, and a full review of health and safety has been carried out across the business.

“Significant progress has been made and safety remains our number-one priority. We work closely with the trade unions, our employees and the HSE to maintain a safe working environment.”

Joy Mining Machinery (UK) said: “[We] fully cooperated with the authorities throughout the investigation, including making Joy’s testing facilities available to the HSE, which assistance the HSE acknowledged saved considerable time and expense. Joy has also instituted corrective measures in the distribution of its bulletins in the UK to the satisfaction of the HSE.

“We believe that, based on the facts, there are considerable mitigating factors in Joy’s favour, and that the amount of the fine imposed by the court reflects what Joy believes was our limited role in this tragedy.

“Joy extends our deepest sympathy to the Cameron family. We recognise that any fatality is a tragedy and something that everyone in our industry must continually work to avoid.”

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11 years ago

Stated above: UK Coal was aware of the problems but regarded them as production issues rather than a significant risk to the safety of workers.

Those responsible for failing to rectify these faults should be nicked..

Why continue to use a supplier with known faulty equipment?

Did Joy not undertake testing when evidence showed initial problems with the hydraulics back in 2008?

Had they changed supplier? Did they not re-assess the maintenance issue of concern?

Truely Shocking!

11 years ago

When people are regularly dying at UK Coal’s sites, a fine of £200,000 does not seem huge when it is exceeded by the costs of the case. Until a massive fine that makes UK Coal sit up and take note, the usual PR platitudes will continue to be said while people are put at risk.

11 years ago

Now here was a case for Corporate Manslaughter, much more appropriate than those taken so far. Disgraceful behaviour sustained over time by senior management.. Shame on them!

11 years ago

Five deaths in as many years by UK Coal equals a Corporate Manslaughter charge in my book. It is disgraceful this company should keep trading whilst killing its employees at a regular rate.

Come on CPS and get your finger out!

11 years ago

As a former miner of 21 years the majority spent on the coal face, accidents of this nature are not common. As a former Face Overman I would question as to why the debris in the chock track had not been cleared throughout the shift. To have that much debris there may have been problematic roof conditions that resulted in the debris building up. The normal course was either to stop and clean or deploy extra men. Maybe the culture has changed?