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August 7, 2008

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Thorough check would have found damage that caused fatal cradle collapse

An access cradle left exposed to the elements on a Sheffield refurbishment site collapsed with four workers on board when a corroded bracket holding it to the suspension rope failed.

Two firms were sentenced at Sheffield Crown Court on 29 July in connection with the incident, in which one of the workers died and the other three were seriously injured. Their employer, Bradway Construction Ltd, of Sheffield, was principal contractor on the project to maintain and paint an office building in the city’s Vicar Lane. It had contracted Apollo Cradles Ltd, of Barnsley, to provide the suspended access cradle for external works.

Although the collapse occurred in July 2003 the project had originally started the previous year. It was halted over the winter but the cradle remained on the site until the job resumed many months later. HSE principal inspector David Redman told SHP that Apollo had failed to carry out an adequate thorough examination of the cradle between the restart and the incident, so it was not spotted that the bracket holding the cradle to the suspension rope was corroded.

The inspector explained: “Apollo did have a system for thoroughly examining that particular part of equipment, and winches, when they were returned to its workshop but that attention to detail didn’t happen with equipment left out on site. Even if it had been thoroughly examined before the job started originally, the fact it had been left out in the elements for so long meant it should have been re-examined before the job restarted, or at least at six-monthly intervals. Had they done so, they would have seen the signs of deterioration.”

Apollo did carry out some checks on the cradle, winch, and bracket just one month before the incident but,, according to the sentencing judge, these were merely “cursory and superficial”. Inspector Redman said: “The judge pointed out in court that the person who did the examination wasn’t an engineer and, although he had a wealth of experience, wasn’t up to the theoretical requirements of the job.”

The court heard that the bracket was obviously corroded but it couldn’t be seen clearly because it was between two sections of metal. However, had the examination been thorough, it would, according to the judge, have required just two bolts to be removed, taking an extra 15 minutes, in order to get a proper view of it. It would then have been easy to spot that this “crucial component” had thread indentations in the bolt-holes, which were showing signs of corrosion and so should have been scrapped.

Inspector Redman explained that although there was a safety rope, which had a brake on it that clamped shut if the suspension rope failed, both ropes were connected to the same bracket — the standard governing such safety ropes requires independent termination. Furthermore, it transpired that the brake consistently jammed, which may have caused additional strain on the bracket.

Apollo was fined £115,000 plus costs of £45,000, having been found guilty of breaching section 3(1) of the HSWA, for failing to protect those not in its employ, and section 36 of the same Act, in that it had caused Bradway Construction to commit an offence under reg.4 of LOLER by telling the company it had carried out a thorough examination of the cradle four weeks previously, which it had not. (Reg.4 states that every employer shall ensure that lifting equipment is of adequate strength and stability for each load, having regard in particular to the stress induced at its mounting or fixing point; and that every part of a load and anything attached to it and used in lifting it is of adequate strength.)

Bradway Construction pleaded guilty to breaching section 2(1) of the HSWA for failing to protect its employees, for which it was fined £25,000 plus £18,000 costs. Explaining the difference between the two fines the judge, in his sentencing remarks, said he didn’t consider Bradway to be as culpable as Apollo, nor their actions to be directly connected to the incident, the death, or the injuries. He did, however, criticise the company’s lack of safety awareness in letting the men operate the cradle without sufficient training or instruction.

Inspector Redman explained that Bradway had provided an induction for one of its electricians at the very start of the job, who then passed on what he’d been told to some of the men working in the cradle, as he himself wasn’t involved in the work.

Apollo, in its defence, said it hadn’t contemplated this type of failure, as it had not been aware that it had happened before. It claimed the design of the failed component was inadequate and that it should have been able to rely on it to last. It also pointed out that Bradway Construction should have spotted the fact that the safety rope wasn’t operating correctly. After the incident, Apollo retrofitted all its cradles with a new design of stirrup to ensure the safety rope operates independently.

Inspector Redman said the two main lessons to be learnt from the case are clear: “Firstly, the examination wasn’t thorough and it wasn’t carried out by a competent person. Also, equipment has to be properly maintained. Apollo did not know anything about the age and service history of the bracket, as they had bought it second-hand, and originals of this design hadn’t been manufactured for 20 years. You can’t expect equipment to last forever. Secondly, you can’t just put people into work situations at height without giving them the wherewithal to understand the risks associated with that work.”

He concluded: “The main message to cradle providers is that they must put their house in order and make sure all their equipment conforms to the relevant British and European standards.”

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