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October 11, 2009

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Sugar giant hit with huge fine following docks death

Sugar manufacturer Tate and Lyle must pay £360,000 in fines and costs after a contractor fell into the Thames and drowned.

Keith Webb, 53, a raw-sugar worker for Acclaim Logistics Ltd, was part of a team contracted to unload a delivery of sugar from a ship, at Tate and Lyle’s refinery in Silvertown, east London.

The incident took place on 2 March 2004, and involved a grab crane, which being used to unload the sugar and place it in a container on the docks. Once most of the sugar had been removed, it was common practice at the site to lower a bulldozer into the ship. This would then be used to push the remaining sugar into a pile, which would be scooped up by the crane.

In order to transport the bulldozer into the hold of the vessel, four chains were attached to the bucket of the crane, and the other ends were attached to lifting lugs, which had been specially welded on to the vehicle. The access ladder leading to the hold was out of action, so Mr Webb was told to sit in the driver’s seat of the bulldozer as it was lifted into position.

But as the bulldozer was being lowered, the lugs snapped and the vehicle fell, striking the side of the ship before plummeting into the river. The vehicle was badly damaged when it struck the ship, and Mr Webb was trapped inside as it sunk. A post-mortem revealed that he died as a result of asphyxiation, caused by drowning.

The HSE visited the site the following day and issued a Prohibition Notice against a similar bulldozer, which prevented it from being lifted until a safe method of work was created. HSE inspector John Crookes said: “In failing to identify and address these inadequacies before they led to the death of a worker, Tate and Lyle’s performance fell well below what could be reasonably expected of them.

“There should have been a clear procedure in place outlining how workers could gain safe access to the ship. Under no circumstances should anyone have been allowed to sit on the vehicle during lifting. Furthermore the bulldozer was not designed to be lifted and the support lugs had been welded to the vehicle to allow it to be moved.”

Tate and Lyle appeared at Southwark Crown Court on 9 October and pleaded guilty to breaching s3(1) of the HSWA 1974. It was fined £270,000 and ordered to pay £90,000 in costs. It also pleaded guilty to s2(1) of the same legislation, for endangering employees who were working in the vicinity of the incident, but no further penalty was awarded.

The firm mitigated that it had no previous convictions, and fully complied with the investigation and the terms of the Prohibition Notice. A spokesman for the company told SHP: “The accident led us to perform a comprehensive review of working practices, safety procedures and training on the raw-sugar jetty at the Thames refinery. Our employees, contractors and union representatives contributed to this review, which resulted in numerous recommendations that we have adopted. In addition we commissioned a number of specialist consultants to investigate and advise upon related technical and other safety issues.”

He added that in sentencing the Judge had commented that good, positive actions had been taken since the accident to improve safety performance.

In May 2007, the firm was fined £8600 following an incident at the same site when a worker severed a finger on an unguarded machine.

Inspector Crookes concluded: “This was a complicated investigation and has taken time to complete. We required a series of expert reports and have also carefully examined the roles of duty holders at the company.

“Above all, however, this is a human tragedy, as Mr Webb leaves a widow, two grown-up children, and two grandchildren, one of whom he was sadly never able to meet. This terrible accident should never have been allowed to happen.”

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