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October 1, 2008

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Troubleshooting oversight ends in injuries to trapped worker

An Essex laundry operator has been fined £30,000, plus a contribution to HSE costs of £15,000, after one of its employees sustained serious injuries while trying to clear a blockage in a conveyor carrying laundry.

Colchester Crown Court heard on 23 September that a supervisor employed by Coggeshall firm, Eastern Counties Laundries, had been working at its premises in Clacton-on-Sea on the day of the incident, 20 April 2006.

Investigating HSE inspector, Julie Rayner, told SHP that the incident occurred at the top of an incline conveyor. She explained that bags of laundry were transported around the site via a rail system before being released at certain points, dropping the laundry at the bottom of a conveyor. This fed into an incline conveyor, which connected directly to one of two continuous-batch washing machines.

A computer-controlled extension conveyor fed the two conveyors. On the day in question, a duvet got caught on the extension conveyor, but the computer continued to repeatedly try to feed the washing machine. The employee pressed emergency-stop buttons to halt the conveyors, before climbing up to try to remove the blockage.

However, this system was faulty. “The company was not aware that the extension conveyor was pneumatic and therefore air-fed,” the inspector explained. “Air was pumped into the system but the emergency stops were not connected to the air system. Pressing them cut off the electrical supply but did not cut off the air supply or remove any air already in the system.”

The extension conveyor, which was also rotating, remained under pressure, so as soon as the worker removed the blockage, the pressure was released. The extension conveyor then activated, trapping his neck and hands as he tried to protect himself. He sustained serious injuries, including external bruising and burns, and internal burns to his throat.

The HSE’s investigation revealed that suitable and sufficient risk assessments of the operation had not been conducted, even though one of the company’s directors had been assigned responsibility for health and safety and a consultant had given advice to the firm. Although general risk assessments had been undertaken, these did not cover troubleshooting practices, such as removing blockages. No suitable training for using the machinery had been given.

The investigation also found that blockages in the washing system occurred several times a day, yet there was no formal procedure for unblocking the machine, nor any training designed for such incidents. “Workers were regularly climbing into the conveyors, placing them at significant risk of injury,” the inspector said.

Eastern Counties Laundries pleaded guilty to breaching s2(1) of HSWA 1974 by not ensuring the safety of its employees.

The company expressed regret in mitigation, and said it had a health and safety director in place. However, the inspector said the director had not ensured that safe practices were taking place, adding: “The company did not take enough of a productive interest in health and safety.”

The judge also remarked that responsibility for health and safety could not be laid at one person’s doorstep.

Inspector Rayner concluded: “The company should have taken steps, either at the point of installation or during use, to ensure that when the machine was stopped it exhausted all the energy within the system, so components could not continue moving. This case illustrates how things can go wrong when risks are not properly assessed and controlled.”

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