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January 30, 2009

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Airbus hit for GBP 200,000 over fatal Concorde tour

Airbus UK Ltd must pay more than £250,000 in fines and costs after admitting health and safety failures that contributed to the death of a 72-year-old man on a tour of a Concorde aircraft.

Horace Livall died in hospital after falling about 4.5 metres on to a concrete standing while he was visiting the Concorde exhibition at the Filton Aerodrome in Bristol, on 24 September 2004.

The court heard that access to the decommissioned aircraft was via a permanent steel gantry, which finished short of the aircraft’s two doors, one at its nose and the other over the wing. Temporary wooden plinths bridged the gap between the walkway and the doors. At the over-wing door there were large gaps between the walkway’s handrails and the aircraft, as well as gaps in the floor either side of the plinths.

On the day of the incident, a tour party, including Mr Livall, his son-in-law and daughter, accessed the aircraft via the over-wing door. They progressed towards the nose of the aircraft, but were directed back owing to Mr Livall’s poor mobility. Although the tour guide thought the family would continue the tour, the family believed they had been told to exit the aircraft and stopped on the walkway. As Mr Livall prepared to take a photo, he stepped back and fell through a gap between the walkway and the aircraft. He suffered head and chest injuries, and died later in hospital.

Both Airbus and BAC Trading Ltd, a small charity of volunteers that was responsible for running the exhibition, pleaded guilty to breaching s3(1) of the HSWA. Neither had undertaken a risk assessment. Sentencing the companies on 7 January at Bristol Crown Court, Judge Lambert felt that Airbus should bear the brunt of the penalty for the death of Mr Livall, owing to its greater resources and knowledge. Airbus was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay £58,000 costs, while BAC was handed a £10,000 fine and £1000 costs.

The plane had arrived at the Airbus site 10 months prior to the incident, after British Airways accepted a bid from the company for the loan of the aircraft. The contract confirmed “care, custody and control” of the aircraft would, upon decommissioning, transfer to Airbus.

James Bennett, prosecuting for the HSE, told the court that attempts between Airbus and BAC to formalise health and safety responsibility failed during the summer of 2004. Airbus supplied an unsafe structure in July 2004 and allowed BAC to open the tour to the public in August, despite knowing there were no written arrangements relating to whose remit health and safety fell under.

The final design of the gantry did not include a bridging section at the mid-wing door for three main reasons: the aircraft was difficult to survey safely; it was unknown how the aircraft would sit or behave once drained of all fluids; and the priceless nature of the plane meant any bridging section could not inflict any damage on it.

Once completed, the gantry would have allowed for accurate measurements to be taken so that the bridging section could be fitted. Plinths were fitted on 5 July 2004 as an interim measure, but were still in place at the time of the incident. It is not clear why no real progress was made in fitting a permanent bridging section after 5 July. Volunteers and employees also expressed concerns that the gap posed a safety risk, but these fears were not properly addressed.

Bennett said: “In short, Airbus had an unfettered discretion about when the exhibition should or should not open. It should not have opened the exhibition without establishing the exhibition was safe. It could have easily called in Airbus’ established health and safety department based on the site. . . The lack of formal agreement between the defendants as to who had responsibility for health and safety no doubt contributed to the accident and risk generally.”

Describing to the court what the company could have done to prevent the incident, Bennett added: “It would have been reasonably practicable to have minimised the risk of persons or objects falling, by:

  • positioning the aircraft within 0.1 metres of the permanent gantry;

  • attaching sliding barrier panels to fill the side gaps while the exhibition was open;
  • fabricating the side barriers longer; and

  • covering the gaps in the floor with panels.

The judge added that Airbus had “supplied an unsafe structure in the first place and then handed it over to BAC, who were lulled into a false sense of security expecting that what Airbus provided would be safe”.

In mitigation, BAC said it was a charity with minimal assets and turnover. It had no previous convictions and trusted Airbus to supply a safe structure. Airbus said it had agreed that BAC would carry out a risk assessment, although this was never followed through. There was no evidence that profit had been put before safety; however, the court heard that, in November 2003, Airbus had been convicted of an offence contrary to s2 of the HSWA over a fall from height.

Summing up the case, HSE inspector Nigel Chambers, who managed the investigation, told SHP: “This case illustrates a quite critical failure of the two companies involved to properly plan for the opening of this museum. . . Airbus is in the business of ensuring that access to aircraft is safe. The two companies failed to cooperate and coordinate such that this last element of access was sorted out.”

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