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March 2, 2011

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Hard-up building firm to pay £5000 over trench-collapse death

A Buckinghamshire construction company has been fined £5000 after a contractor died when a trench collapsed on him.

Joshua Bladon, 22, of Leighton Buzzard, was working for Pitstone-based Russell Smith Ltd at a site in Aylesbury on 16 April 2008. He was digging the trench for the foundations of a house extension with a colleague, who was using a mini-excavator.

The original plan was for a trench of a uniform depth of 1.2m but a buildings inspector on the site on the day noticed that trees on an adjacent property would be affected. He therefore asked for the trench to be dug to the NHBC (National House-Building Council) standard of 2 metres.

The inspector had this conversation with Russell Smith, a director of the company, who failed to carry out a risk assessment for digging the trench to the greater depth, and did not pass on any information to Mr Bladon and his colleague, Domenico Iannone, in relation to the need to prevent access to the deeper trench by people.

Later that day, after Smith had left the site, and while the two workers were digging the trench, Mr Iannone noticed that Mr Bladon had disappeared and the long trench had collapsed in the middle.

At an earlier hearing before Aylesbury magistrates last November, Mr Iannone – according to a report in the Leighton Buzzard Observer – told the court: “Josh was behind me on the dumper and then I saw him walk past the digger and say something like ‘hang on’ as I turned around to empty the bucket. When I turned back he had disappeared and the trench had fallen in. I could just see the top of his woolly hat and realised he was under there.”

Mr Iannone tried to dig his colleague out with the help of neighbours but Mr Bladon was pronounced dead at the scene from asphyxiation.

Russell Smith Ltd pleaded guilty at the November hearing to breaching section 3(1) of the HSWA 1974 but the magistrates referred the case to the Crown Court for sentencing, as they felt they did not have sufficient powers in this respect.

However, the judge, sitting on 28 February, fined the firm just £5000, after its defence counsel presented information on its “parlous” financial state, and said it had previously had a good health and safety record. It was ordered to pay £5000 towards the HSE’s costs.

The judge said no amount of money could recompense Mr Bladon’s family. He added that Russell Smith was careless and should have carried out a risk assessment, and had a conversation with Mr Bladon and other workers in the vicinity of the trench with regard to digging it deeper.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Gavin Bull said: “Trench collapses are a well-known cause of serious injury and death in the construction industry. This incident could easily have been avoided had the correct planning taken place. This is a shocking case that has had a profound effect on the family of Mr Bladon. Companies need to recognise the dangers of excavations and ensure safe systems are in order prior to starting work.”

Two weeks ago, Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings became the first company to be sentenced under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 and was fined £385,000 in relation to the death of a 27-year-old employee, who was asphyxiated when the 3.5m-deep trench in which he was working collapsed.

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Edward
Edward
11 years ago

A pretty extraodinary sentance which demonstrates the extent to which health and safety law has become a lottery. Get charged under the Corporate Manslaughter Act (like Cotswold Geotechnical) and you are fined 385K, get charged under the HSAWA you get fined 5K and if you are charged under the Health and Safety Offences Act you would be fined something quite different and probably get a prison sentance to boot. The question is why prosecute under HSAWA instead of an alternative?

Ian
Ian
11 years ago

Okay, I understand that Russell Smith Ltd and Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings were prosecuted under differing Acts of Legislation but can anyone explain why the fines placed on each Company differ to such an extent for the same failings. Absolutely ridculous state of affairs.

J1Wynn
J1Wynn
11 years ago

CPS go with prosecutions under the HASAW etc Act its the route of least resistance in securing a prosecution; re the general duties. Its disproportionate and sends out a clear message to contractors that if you are not operating on a sound financial footing don’t worry when the brown stuff hits the fan it won’t cost you. If guilty contractors don’t have the funds to be fined excessively lock the buggers up. The sentence should fit the crime regardless, 5k for a death, open the flood gates.

Jimfer
Jimfer
11 years ago

So companies who dont have sufficient funds are allowed to go virtually scot free for causing a fatality? If it were not so tragic it would be a complete joke. Why wasn’t a custodial sentence imposed on the company directors for such a flagrant disregard of the regulations? This sentence is a massive injustice and only sends out the wrong message to all the cowboy companies working in this sector tocontinue to ignore the law and put their workers lives at risk. Expect a rise in such incidents.

Paul
Paul
11 years ago

What about the buildings inspector. He had requested the increased depth from what is considered a ‘safe’ depth to a depth which would definitely require some controls to prevent unplanned collapse. Did they advise on the increased risks present and therefore suggest suitable controls, obviously without being too prescriptive.