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November 24, 2008

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Sellafield death: Worker plunged 95 metres to his death inside nuclear-plant chimney

Two companies have been fined a total of £250,000 after a workman fell 95 metres to his death inside an industrial chimney.

Carlisle Crown Court heard that Neil Cannon, 36, was carrying out work to decommission a chimney at Sellafield Nuclear plant in Cumbria, when the accident occurred on 9 January 2003.

Mr Cannon was standing on a purpose-built working platform when a steel girder fell on to a ledge that was adjacent to the platform. To retrieve the girder he stepped off the platform and moved on to the ledge. He was wearing a harness and a lanyard, which was attached to the edge of the platform.

As he was moving the girder it tipped upwards and fell down the gap between the ledge and the platform. The girder sliced through Mr Canon’s lanyard and caused him to lose his balance and fall 95 metres to the bottom of the chimney.

Sellafield Ltd (then operating as British Nuclear Fuels Ltd), owners of the nuclear plant, pleaded guilty to breaching s3(1) of the HSWA 1974 on 20 November. The court fined the firm £150,000 and ordered it to pay costs of £50,500.

PC Richardson & CO Ltd, which was the sub-contractor responsible for carrying out the work at the site, pleaded guilty to breaching s2(1) of the HSWA for failure to ensure an employee wasn’t exposed to risks to their safety. The company was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay costs of £25,000.

HSE Principal Inspector, Mark Cottriall, explained that although a safe working method has been prepared for removing the steelwork in the chimney, it was not followed. He said: “As often happens on construction projects, the proposed method was changed as the work progressed. These changes took place over a period of time and resulted in workers, including Mr Cannon, having to work on an unprotected ledge inside the chimney.”

In mitigation, Sellafield Ltd said it was “deeply saddened” by the accident and subsequently suspended work at the site until a full review of its health and safety practices was carried out. The company also stressed that is has a good health and safety record, and this was the first time an accident of this nature had occurred.

PC Richardson pleaded guilty at the first possible opportunity and told the court that it has carried out a full review of its working practices since the accident.

Concluded inspector Cottriall: “This accident could have been prevented if safe working practices had been followed. If this were the case then Mr Cannon would not have needed to leave the safety of the working platform.

“The companies involved should have realised that these practices were unsafe and should have ensured that staff stopped using these methods. Because of a major monitoring failure these failings were never identified, which had tragic consequences.”

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