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March 29, 2010

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Ineffective isolation system allowed worker to enter enclosure

A factory engineer working on a project to improve safety died when he was struck by moving machinery.

The incident led to the prosecution of his employer, Hydro Aluminium Extrusion Ltd, which was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay costs of £13,375 at Durham Crown Court on 25 March.

The court heard that the company specialises in supplying aluminium extrusion and fabricated products. On 2 November 2006, 38-year-old Jens Hinrichs was working at the firm’s factory in Birtley, near Chester-le-Street.

Originally from Germany, Mr Hinrichs was employed as a project engineer and was working within a shuttle line that transported finished aluminium products from four packing stations to a banding machine. At the rear of the packing stations, a shuttle car ran along rail tracks, picking up finished items.

HSE inspector Zoë Feather told SHP: “It has never been established why he was within the line but we think he was in there looking at pneumatic isolation points. We can’t be certain but it is likely he was carrying out some form of intervention task.”

No one was in the area at the time but a packing-machine operator heard Mr Hinrichs shout out from inside the enclosure. The operator hit the emergency stop but Mr Hinrichs had already been struck by the 100m-long shuttle car. He was taken to hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival.

Inspector Feather explained that there were 10 gates on the shuttle line, each operated via their own control panel. The system in place allowed anyone to stop the line via the panel and enter the enclosure. It is likely that another worker reactivated the line, unaware that Mr Hinrichs was inside.

Said inspector Feather: “This incident could have been easily prevented if the company had a suitable system to make sure workers could not gain access into the shuttle line. Where work needed to be carried out in the shuttle enclosure, suitable isolation procedures and systems of work should have been in place to prevent dangerous movement of machinery.”

She also pointed out that the firm’s risk assessment only took into account the packing-machine operators and did not include intervention tasks, such as how to clear a potential equipment blockage.

The inspector commented: “If the company had properly risk-assessed the shuttle line and implemented a system to safely enter into the shuttle enclosure, this tragic incident would not have happened.”

Hydro admitted an offence under s2(1) of the HSWA 1974 and pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity. It said it had a previously good safety record, and its failings were not attributed to a motive to make profit.

After the incident it bolted eight of the 10 gates shut so that no one could use them, while the remaining two had their control panels disabled. These gates can now only be restarted by a key system, which can only be operated by trained staff.

Speaking after the court hearing, the victim’s brother Hannes said: “Jens’ death is tragic because he was working on a project to improve safety at the time. We hope that this court verdict will help protect other employees from such horrible accidents.”

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