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December 22, 2009

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Bus firm fined GBP 400,000 over driver death in overcrowded garage

A driver was crushed to death between two buses in a garage that was housing almost twice as many vehicles as it was designed to accommodate.

Centrewest London Buses — part of the First Group — was responsible for the Uxbridge Bus Garage, where Robert Cherry, 59, was employed as a driver. On 18 May 2004, Mr Cherry had just finished making routine checks to his vehicle as part of the regular morning ‘run-out’ and was talking to a colleague. He happened to step between two parked buses and when one of them suddenly lurched backwards, Mr Cherry was trapped against the rear vehicle. He died of crush injuries at the scene.

HSE Principal Inspector Bill Hazleton explained to SHP what happened: “In the mornings the drivers at the garage had to perform certain checks on their vehicles, including topping up the water. One driver had to pull his bus forward because there wasn’t enough room for him to go round the back of it. This driver thought he was in ‘drive’ and took the handbrake off. He pressed the accelerator but instead of going forwards the bus lurched backwards, crushing Mr Cherry against another bus behind.”

The HSE’s investigation revealed that traffic management at the garage was poor, particularly during the morning ‘run-out’. The premises had originally been designed to hold 65 buses but at the time of Mr Cherry’s death it was the base for 119 vehicles, though not all were necessarily in the garage at the time.

The garage was not well lit, and drivers carrying out checks often had to walk between closely parked vehicles that were manoeuvring to leave.

Furthermore, the bus that struck Mr Cherry had a defective gear selector, which may have meant the wrong gear was indicated in the driver’s cab. Checks carried out on similar buses after the incident revealed that four others at the Uxbridge garage had similar problems, while investigations at the company’s other London garages found that 10 out of 60 buses were significantly faulty, and a further 30 per cent had minor faults.

Said inspector Hazleton: “The defective gear selector had been reported to the company but it did not have a sufficiently robust system in place for identifying faults, or repairing them.”

Centrewest London Buses Ltd appeared at Southwark Crown Court on 16 December. It pleaded not guilty to a breach of section 2(1) of the HSWA 1974 for failing to safeguard its employee, Mr Cherry, but a jury found it guilty and it was fined £400,000. Costs are to be determined at a separate hearing.

In its defence, the company said it felt it had adequately assessed the risks at the garage, and that its system for identifying faults and repairing them was robust. Since the incident, drivers no longer have to top up their vehicles’ water in the mornings, and there is now a system in place under which buses are allocated to drivers, rather than the previous practice of drivers wandering around the garage to choose their own vehicle. The company has also worked with the manufacturer of the gearboxes to install a new selector mechanism.

Concluded inspector Hazleton: “Robert Cherry died because his employer did not do enough to ensure his safety, or that of his colleagues. Like so many workplace accidents, this one was entirely preventable and should never have happened. At least two of the three measures the company took after the incident could easily have been implemented earlier.”

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