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October 30, 2008

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Local authority fined over teacher’s theatre fall

A county council has appeared in the dock after a schoolteacher was seriously injured when he fell down an open lift shaft backstage at a council-owned theatre.

Carmarthenshire County Council (CCC) was fined the maximum £45,000 by Llanelli magistrates on 9 October in relation to the incident, which occurred on 21 May 2007, as preparations were being made for the Urdd Eisteddfod, a youth cultural festival.

The court heard that teacher Gareth Williams had been helping to set up the lights for a production at the Lyric Theatre, Carmarthen. After walking to the side of the stage to fetch a chair, he stepped back and fell 2.5 metres into an unguarded stage liftshaft, sustaining multiple fractures and shattering his right arm and right eye socket.

The lift was found to have been defective and was not at stage level at the time of the incident. Safety barriers and a board over the opening of the shaft had not been put into position despite the lift not being in use, and visiting staff were not provided with formal instructions regarding the use of the lift.

“Safety barriers should have been interlocked with the mechanism of the lift,” Clare Owen, the HSE inspector who investigated the case, explained to SHP. “Had a lift inspector examined the lift, that situation would have been rectified. The LOLER regulations require a thorough examination of the lift at least every six months, but it had not been inspected between 2004 and 2007, when the incident took place. It was condemned by the Council’s insurers after the incident.”

In its defence, CCC said it had an excellent safety record, had cooperated fully with the HSE and had acted immediately to address the issue. It had been an unfortunate incident and had only been a low fall. Nevertheless, Francis Neville, chair of the magistrates, pointed out that: “The risk in this case was one of death.”

Inspector Owen said the Council did have a corporate health and safety policy, but the system in place at the theatre was extremely informal, with no written system in place. It was heavily reliant on employee experience and common sense. She added: “This was an obvious risk for a theatre space, and the simple systems needed to prevent incidents such as these should have been in place.”

The inspector concluded: “Falls from height remain a major cause of workplace injuries, with falls from below or around head height contributing to around 70 per cent of all major fall injuries. It is not necessary to fall far to land hard, and this man’s injuries have affected his life considerably.”

CCC pleaded guilty to breaching s2(1) and s3(1) of HSWA 1974 by not ensuring the safety of employees or members of the public. It was fined £20,000 on each charge. It was also told to pay a £5000 fine after pleading guilty to breaching reg.9(1) of the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER), as well as full costs of £7712.

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