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July 19, 2009

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Jail terms for building bosses over death of teenage worker

A “protracted and complex” investigation into the death of a 15-year-old casual construction labourer has resulted in jail sentences for the builder who employed him, and the disqualified company manager who was supervising the project at the time.

Builder Colin Holtom and contractor Darren Fowler were sentenced at the Old Bailey today (20 July) in relation to the death of Adam Gosling in Hertfordshire in April 2007. Holtom, 64, of Latchingdon, near Chelmsford, Essex, pleaded guilty to gross-negligence manslaughter and was jailed for three years. Fowler, 47, of Upminster, had previously pleaded guilty to working while disqualified from being a company manager and failing to discharge a duty under section 3(1) of the HSWA 1974. He was jailed for nine months with three months suspended.

Adam Gosling had been doing some casual work for Colin Holtom, who traded as Maldon Groundworks. Holtom was sub-contracted to Romford-based Soneca Systems Ltd to carry out a large garden landscaping and refurbishment project at a private address in Broadgates Avenue, Hadley Wood. Darren Fowler was the project manager for the site.

The work centred around an outdoor swimming pool. The existing pool-house had been demolished, exposing a 22-foot-long wall, which was seven-foot high and had a large crack running down its centre. The wall was deemed unsafe and required demolition.

On 23 April 2007, Adam and his older brother were both working at the site and were told by Holtom to demolish the wall. There was no proper discussion or instruction on how the wall was to be removed before work started, and the brothers began demolition with no supervision. When the wall began to lean in the direction of a neighbour’s garden, Adam went to speak to Holtom, who apparently told them to get into the neighbour’s garden and push the wall back.

As Adam did so, the wall fell towards him, hitting a concrete garage and trapping Adam against it. Police, paramedics, the air ambulance, and the London Fire Brigade attended the scene. The emergency services managed to free Adam but he was confirmed dead at the scene, having suffered a fractured skull.

Enquiries into the incident were led by the Homicide and Serious Crime Command based at Hendon, in conjunction with the HSE. Detective Inspector Pete Basnett, said: “This has been a protracted and complex investigation lasting more than two years, and we’re pleased with today’s convictions, which should serve as a clear warning that health and safety laws are there for a reason, and ignoring them can have tragic consequences.

“Holtom left two inexperienced young workers working at a wall already deemed to be dangerous without supervising them, or giving proper instructions on how the work was to be carried out. Even when Adam approached him halfway through the demolition to seek advice as the wall was beginning to move, Holtom still took no action and didn’t even go to inspect the danger area. While Fowler was not on site he had known as early as 18 April that the wall was dangerous, as proved by an email he sent to his client.

“What makes this case particularly tragic is that Adam’s brother witnessed his death first-hand and my thoughts go out to him and the rest of his family, who have been left devastated by what happened.”

Simon Hester, the HSE investigating inspector, added: “The management and set-up of this small construction project was appalling. Adam Gosling should never have been there at all, as 15-year-olds have been banned from working on construction sites since 1920.

“There was a complete disregard for basic health and safety requirements — inadequate personal protective equipment, no risk assessments, no training, and minimal supervision. There were no welfare facilities on site, and the workers were not even covered by Employers Liability Insurance.”

Linzi Herberston, founder member of FACK (Families Against Corporate Killers), whose husband was killed by a negligent employer when he fell from incorrectly erected scaffolding in 1998, said:  “This case is tragic but not an accident, as those responsible should never have permitted anyone, let alone a 15-year-old boy to work on a job like this, where death or serious injury were entirely foreseeable and therefore should have been prevented.”

Speaking after the sentences were handed down, national secretary of the Construction Safety Campaign, Tony O’Brien, said: “This is clearly the right sentence for this crime. There are very many more deaths at work that should result in a manslaughter trial and imprisonment but they don’t, and this must now change.

“Also, the guilty parties here were minnows in an industry where directors of big firms have evaded the full force of the law. It must now change to ensure all company directors who make decisions on operational health and safety have full legal duties placed on them and can be personally held to account, should anything go wrong.”

Inspector Hester concluded: “We know there are many other sites with serious shortcomings but it is the duty of the contactors and employers to ensure that basic health and safety requirements are followed. The HSE will do all we can to ensure tragedies like this are avoided — we rely heavily on people contacting us with concerns and worries so that we can intervene before any more workers are killed in such tragic circumstances.”

Charges against Holtom of failure to discharge a duty under section 2(1) of the HSWA 1974 have been left on file.

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