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December 15, 2011

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Judge takes pity on UK Coal when setting fines

A judge has imposed smaller fines than planned on energy provider UK Coal, in relation to four separate fatal incidents, as he felt adding a huge sum to the costs would be “unjust and effectively punish the defendant twice”.

UK Coal Mining Ltd has been ordered to pay £1.2million in fines and costs following the deaths of four miners in separate incidents at two collieries in Nottingham and the East Midlands. The firm was sentenced at Sheffield Crown Court on 14 December having pleaded guilty to four counts of breaching s2(1) of the HSWA 1974, and three breaches of s3(1) of the same Act.

The court heard that the first incident took place on 19 June 2006 at Daw Mill colliery (pictured), near Coventry. Supervisor Trevor Steeples was working in an area of the mine 700m underground, when he was overcome by methane gas and died at the scene. The HSE’s investigation found that the firm failed to ensure that accurate recordings of methane and oxygen levels were carried out. It also failed to identify that a fan had been positioned incorrectly, which prevented the circulation of fresh air inside the mine.

The second incident occurred on 6 August 2006, also at Daw Mill, where miner Paul Hunt died after falling from a poorly-maintained underground transporter into the path of a moving train.

Six months later, on 17 January 2007, again at Daw Mill, mineworker Anthony Garrigan was crushed to death when more than 100 tonnes of unsupported coal fell on him. The section of tunnel had a history of collapses but UK Coal failed to take steps to introduce a safe system of work.

At Welbeck Colliery in Meden Vale, Notts, miner Paul Milner died on 3 November 2007. He was installing roof supports around a coalface that had ceased production when the roof collapsed and he was crushed by some 90 tonnes of rock. HSE inspectors learned that a safe system of work had been created before the work started but UK Coal failed to enforce it.

When delivering the sentence Judge MacDuff said he originally planned to fine the firm £300,000 for each of the section 2(1) offences and not impose any further penalty for the three other charges. But he said he was “surprised at the size of the [HSE’s] costs claimed” and took the view that the correct total financial penalty was £1.2million. As a result, he adjusted the fines down to £112,500 per section 2 breach and awarded £187,500 in costs for each of the four breaches.

Judge MacDuff said he had considered the company’s financial concerns before deciding on the level of fines. He added: “It would be wrong to add a further substantial sum by the way of costs. Since these events took place the owners of this company have already suffered. The value of their investment has already fallen from more than £5 per share to 29p.”

The judge also made it clear that he had “close regard” to the current sentencing guidelines in reaching his decision. These state that fines “will seldom be less than £100,000”, meaning the fines imposed on UK Coal were close to the minimum required.

After the hearing, HSE mines inspector Bob Leeming commented: “These tragic incidents followed a four-and-a-half-year period where there were no deaths in the whole UK mining industry. It’s even more shocking that these preventable deaths were the fault of one company. All it would have taken to prevent these deaths was better management and proper hazard control by UK Coal. The company needs to demonstrate that they have learned – and will act upon – the lessons from these deaths.”

The HSE also brought charges against two managers at Daw Mill colliery, in relation to the death of Trevor Steeples. But the case against John Alstead and Terence Davison was dropped two weeks into the trial because the HSE did not have sufficient evidence to continue it.

After yesterday’s hearing, Anne Steeples, the mother of Trevor Steeples, said: “Our family are relieved that UK Coal has been fined over the tragic deaths of four men but are bitterly disappointed at the outcome of the trial regarding Trevor’s death. Somebody was to blame. We know who they are and they will have to live with this knowledge for the rest of their lives.”

Pressure-group FACK (Families Against Corporate Killers) expressed anger at the fine, saying: “When the company has managed to kill four workers in four separate incidents, it is hard to see how a minimum fine reflects the seriousness of the crimes, or is a proportionate punishment, or how it could act as a deterrent. FACK thinks the judge and the courts should have more concern for the workers lives than for the company’s stock price.”

In a statement after the sentencing, UK Coal said: “We deeply regret any injury, or loss of life, and our thoughts are with the families of those involved in today’s hearing. We accept the decision of the court and I can confirm that we are currently reviewing all aspects of safety throughout our operations [and] intend to announce our findings as soon as is practical following the completion of the review.

“The safety of our workforce remains our number-one priority and we remain committed to working with our employees and trade unions to further improve our safety performance.”

SHP understands that the HSE is currently bringing charges against UK Coal in relation to another fatal accident, and is investigating two other incidents that also resulted in fatalities.

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12 years ago

An interesting one this!

The good Judge McDuff noted the fall in the company’s investors (share price) interest and appears to have concluded that this was a part of the financial penalty.

That said, I have never known of a company to be debarred from winning a contract on the basis of their ‘accident’ record. Look at the fatalities and mutilations on construction sites, the household names involved and their subsequent successful tender bids

Once the price is right – nothing else matters!

12 years ago

I feel that I must put my point forward. I was employed at Daw mill colliery at the time of these trajic deaths. Two of these deaths could have been avioded if two of the deceased had followed the correct safety precautions. Both Trevor and Paul would be alive today if these precautions had been followed. I am not sticking up for UK Coal, but partial blame has to be put elswhere. Space is preventing me from giving a true reflection of the two incidents, also I am not speaking ill of the dead.

12 years ago

With respect to Paul, it sounds like UK coal have been let off very lightly. I think these series of fatalities indicate that the company in not worthy of staying business because they are putting profit before safety.

I understand that mining is a inherently hazardous activity, however I also wonder how many more miners must be killed before the company is put out of business?