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August 28, 2008

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Construction boss jailed for manslaughter of illegal worker

In a case described by the HSE inspector who investigated it as “appalling”, a Chinese worker fell to his death through a skylight on a building site in Norfolk.

Sharaz Butt, 44, the sole director of Norwich firm Alcon Construction, was sent to prison for 12 months by Norwich Crown Court on 21 August after pleading guilty to the manslaughter of Wu Zhu Weng. He was also disqualified from acting as a company director for five years after pleading guilty to breaching s37 of HSWA 1974 by neglecting the safety of his workers as a company director.

The court heard that three Chinese men, who were illegal immigrants and illegally employed, had been working for Alcon Construction on a project to refurbish and extend an old bakery in Trowse, Norwich, on 31 January 2008. Two of the workers had been constructing a “jerry-built” form of temporary edge protection for the open flat roof, according to HSE inspector Peter Nickerson, who investigated the case.

Although it is not clear exactly what happened, Mr Weng had climbed on to the roof to assist the two other men and it appears he either tripped over the raised lip of the skylight that was covered with a white tarpaulin, or fell straight through it, through the sheet. He dropped 3.26 metres on to a concrete floor, sustaining fatal injuries.

“This is yet another case of vulnerable foreign workers being exploited, as the workers were illegal,” the inspector said.

In his defence, Butt said he had not been motivated by financial gain, although the HSE disputed this point. “By not taking the appropriate managerial and control measures, it could be said he had not invested in the company in the way that a proper concern would have done,” the inspector told SHP. Butt also said the company would fold if he were sent to prison, as he was its sole guiding mind. The firm had taken remedial action after the incident to prevent a reoccurrence — both Butt and a site supervisor attended a site safety training course.

“We will be investigating any continuing works the company may undertake to ensure appropriate management is in place,” inspector Nickerson added.

No costs were awarded, as neither Butt nor the company had any financial means. Alcon Construction had also been charged under s2(1) of HSWA, but a token fine of £10 had been handed down. Judge Peter Jacobs said he would have fined the firm tens of thousands of pounds had the company been in a position to pay such an amount. To be on a flat roof with open, unguarded skylights without an accident happening was, the judge added, “total lunacy”, and Butt had shown a “cynical disregard” for his workers.

Evidence obtained during the investigation by the Police consisted of photographs taken by a camera used by Butt during the course of the construction work. “This was an entire album of pictures of the site as it developed, showing — at best — bad practices and — realistically speaking — appalling practices,” inspector Nickerson said. “There was no site supervision of any meaningful nature. We can pin the responsibility for everything the company did and did not do on Butt. Absolutely everything flowed from his actions and non-actions.”

The inspector concluded: “The sentence handed down by the judge reflects the seriousness of the offence. As company director, Butt was responsible for the health and safety of all his workers, and he failed to fulfil this responsibility.

“Mr Weng’s tragic death could have been prevented had his employer followed basic health and safety procedures. The skylight he was working near had had not been properly covered and was a dangerous place to work.

“Butt had also failed to prepare a method statement and risk assessment for the work he expected his staff to do, did not provide appropriate access and egress, and did not ensure that his staff received the necessary training to carry out the work.”

Inspector Nickerson added that the case demonstrated to the construction industry the importance of complying with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 to ensure health and safety is planned for at the outset of a job through the involvement of all parties, including designers, clients and contractors.

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