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May 20, 2011

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Two companies and worker prosecuted over excavator fatality

An excavator operator and a plant-hire firm have appeared in court after a foreman was killed when an excavator bucket filled with concrete fell on him at a London construction site.

City of London Magistrates’ Court heard that Gerry Fox was working as a foreman during the construction of a four-storey residential building at Shawfield Street in Chelsea on 28 August, 2007.

The site formerly housed a warehouse, which was demolished, but the front wall of the building had been left in place so it could be used as part of the new building. On the day of the incident the site’s principal contractor, Euro Earthworks Ltd, had instructed employees at the site to underpin the wall, which would strengthen its foundations.

The team poured concrete into the section of underpin they were working on and left it to set. They then placed the remaining concrete in the bucket of an excavator, which was being operated by Michael Cunningham, who raised the bucket and left it in a stationary position above the other workers. The bucket, which weighed more than two tonnes, subsequently fell and narrowly missed the site supervisor but landed on Mr Fox, who was killed instantly.

The HSE’s investigation found that Cunningham had failed to manually insert a pin into the ‘quick hitch’ – a device attached to the excavator arm used for the rapid changing of attachments – which was necessary to safely lock the bucket in place.

It also discovered that the firm that leased out the excavator, Hydro Plant Ltd, did not have a suitable regime of inspection for the plant it hired out. The excavator’s quick hitch was found to have a fault that enabled the mechanism to open. But this would not have caused the bucket to fall if the pin had been inserted. The company also supplied the equipment without adequate safety warning signs, written information and instructions, or CE marking.

HSE inspector Loraine Charles explained that Cunningham had failed to take reasonable care of the safety of fellow employees by positioning the bucket above their heads. She said: “This tragic incident was entirely preventable. Mr Cunningham can have been in no doubt that he should not have operated the excavator without the quick hitch’s safety pin in place, and that he should not have manoeuvered the bucket over people.

“As hirers of the work equipment, Hydro Plant Ltd should clearly have paid much closer attention to the requirements placed upon them by health and safety law to ensure that use of the equipment was safe.”

Hydro Plant Ltd appeared in court on 19 May and pleaded guilty to breaching s3(1) of the HSWA. It was fined £7000 and ordered to pay £10,000 in costs. Michael Cunningham appeared at the same hearing and pleaded guilty to breaching s7 of the same Act and was fined £700 and ordered to pay £1000 towards costs.

In mitigation, Hydro Plant said it did not cause accident but accepted that it had allowed equipment to be leased out that was not in a suitable condition. It has subsequently ensured that all its equipment is CE-marked and that customers are supplied with instructions. It has also carried out the necessary repairs to the excavator.

Cunningham told the court he had no previous convictions and that he deeply regretted the incident.

Mr Fox’s employer, Euro Earthworks, has subsequently gone into administration and will be tried in its absence at the same court on 7 July, charged with breaching s2(1) of the HSWA 1974.

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