Contractor and security company fined after security guard dies of hypothermia at windfarm
Two companies have been fined following an incident where a security guard died after being found lying face down and hypothermic, in deep snow, at a remote hillside in Ayrshire.
Ronald Alexander died in hospital after being “exposed to extreme weather conditions” for several hours at the Afton wind farm construction site. Another security guard was also exposed to the heavy snow and cold.
Ayr Sheriff Court heard that just after midnight on 22 January 2018, Ronald (Ronnie) Alexander, a 74-year-old security guard employed by Corporate Service Management Limited, was found by Police Scotland’s Mountain Rescue Team at Afton Windfarm, a remote site near New Cumnock. Mr Alexander died later that day having never regained consciousness.
Corporate Service Management Limited was contracted by Northstone (NI) Limited, who trade as Farrans, to provide security for this site. Following a site visit by the managing director and operations director of Corporate Service Management, it was agreed that two guards would be required because it was known that mobile phone signals offsite are very poor.
Around lunchtime on 21 January, as forecasted, the weather deteriorated resulting in deep drifts on the road to the site from New Cumnock, and the road between the gatehouse where Mr Alexander worked and the site compound where his colleague was stationed. Although mobile phone communications were known to be poor and inconsistent at the site there was no landline. Two-way radios were available, but these could only be used for the guards to speak with each other and not offsite.
The tragedy unfolded after The Met Office issued a yellow “be aware” warning for heavy snow across large swathes of Scotland. Mr Alexander’s family became concerned when he failed to return from a 12-hour shift at the wind farm near New Cumnock. They tried to call his mobile phone but could not make contact. A search was mounted for Mr Alexander after his grandson raised the alarm at about 20:20.
The family were told at 01:00 that Police Scotland’s Mountain Rescue Team had found the security guard about a mile from his cabin and more than six hours after his shift finished. He was airlifted off the site with a younger colleague.
Mr Alexander died on 22 January and the cause of death was confirmed as hypothermia.
The HSE investigation into Mr Alexander’s death found that when preparing their emergency weather plan, Northstone (NI) Ltd had failed to include those times when nobody from the company would be present at the site. The company also failed to ensure there was a back-up generator at either of the guard’s locations to ensure that their welfare area would have heating and lighting should the main generator fail, despite this having occurred on several occasions previously. Northstone (NI) Ltd did not ensure that Mr Alexander or his colleague had a reliable means of calling for help.
At around 5pm, Mr Alexander’s colleague managed to obtain a signal on his mobile phone and reported to Corporate Service Management’s control room that not only had the generator failed, but that the only means of transporting the men offsite, a 4×4 vehicle, had become trapped in the deep snow at the site compound. Despite this, Corporate Service Management did not call the emergency services until after 9pm.
Corporate Service Management’s emergency plan relied on there being effective communication between the guards and their control room, however they failed to provide this or to make sure that Northstone (NI) Ltd had provided this at the site.
Northstone (NI) Limited, Kingsway, Dunmurry, Belfast pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £768,000.
Corporate Service Management Limited, MacLellan Street, Glasgow pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £100,800.
Speaking after the hearing, HSE Inspector Gerard Muir said: “This incident could so easily have been avoided had either company ensured that a suitable assessment had been made of the risk to those working at the site in poor weather, that suitable and sufficient means had been provided for the guards to communicate offsite, and that back-up generators had been provided, particularly when they knew how often the main generator had failed. By simply carrying out these correct control measures and ensuring safe working practices at this site, this tragic event could have been avoided.
“Companies should be aware that HSE will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action against those that fall below the required standards.”
In a statement, Mr Alexander’s widow Mary, from Kilmarnock, said the couple had been married for almost 50 years. She said: “While we now know what happened that night it pains us to imagine what Ronnie felt – not just the physical struggle but enduring it alone. Because of this, we’ll never really have peace or closure.”
His daughter Laura Alexander said: “The only saving grace is that the rescuers found our dad and the hospital kept him alive long enough so he wasn’t alone at the very end and we got to say goodbye.
“We now just hope all industries, not just wind farms, who rely on remote workers take a hard look at themselves, their support procedures and back-up plans to make sure people are safe.”
Following the court hearing Northstone issued a statement in which it expressed its deep regret.
The statement said: “Northstone accepts that on this occasion at Afton Windfarm we did not meet the high health and safety standards that we seek to achieve to protect our employees, customers, clients, subcontractors and communities.
“We deeply regret that this resulted in the death of Mr Ronald Alexander. Our thoughts and sincerest sympathies remain with his family and friends.”
It added that the company took “immediate action” to prevent a re-occurrence.
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