Shipping company fined €850,000 after falling column kills welder

Among the aggravating factors highlighted by Judge Pauline Codd, when she imposed an €850,000 fine on a shipping company following a fatal accident, was the company’s over reliance on the employee to assess the risks to himself.

Another factor was the company’s failure to ensure equipment was used to secure columns, one of which fell on the worker and killed him.

At a sentencing hearing last Wednesday, Judge Codd said the company, which pleaded guilty to failing to manage and conduct its work activities, specifically the dismantling of a steel hopper, in such a way as to ensure, in so far as reasonably practicable, the safety of its employees, contrary to the SHWW Act 2005, section 8 (2) (a), had breached its obligation to ensure employees were not put at unnecessary hazard.

At an earlier hearing, the court heard evidence that that the worker, an experienced welder, was killed when a six-metre steel stanchion fell on top of him shortly after he had been using a blow torch to separate it from a larger structure, a steel hopper used in the offloading of grain from ships.

The court heard the structure was larger than the typical house. The welder had been given the job of dismantling the hopper in a shipping yard. On the day before the accident, the welder had dismantled two six-metre upright support bars, or stanchions, from a ten by ten metre metal lattice. On the day of the accident, he was working on a third stanchion and had used oxacetylene cutting equipment to cut through the part of the bar welded to the grid.

Giving evidence, HSA inspector Frank Kerin told the court he assumed the welder thought that would enable him to bring the column down safely. The welder then stood up and was walking towards his van, when the column fell over and struck him. Inspector Kerin told the court the weight of the bar could not be held by what remained of the frame. He said a number of co-workers ran to the scene and tried to lift the bar, but were unable to do so.

The HSA investigation found that the method used to dismantle the bars made it necessary for the welder to work in “a danger zone”. Inspector Kerin said it would have required more than one man to carry out the work in a safe manner. He added that the dismantling was later finished using three men.

The HSA investigation also found that the use of a forklift to shake the bars loose from the lattice was uncontrolled and stanchions could fall in any direction. Inspector Kerin told the court the negligence on the part of the company arose from the welder’s working at the base of unsupported stanchions where the stanchions were unsecured.

He also told the court a prohibition notice was served on the day and an external company was later subcontracted to finish the dismantling. Three men, including a supervisor, were involved by that company in dismantling the remaining parts of the hopper. A forklift was also utilised.

The court hear that the welder died as a result of catastrophic internal injuries, including to his heart.

In a plea in mitigation, senior counsel for the company, Shane Murphy, told the court the company was stunned by the fatality. He said a verbal plan was put in place for the dismantling of the hopper.

He said the welder was a very highly valued and respected employee and regarded as a person of immense experience. He said as a mark of the esteem in which it held the welder, who was a father of two, the company continue to pay his wages and overtime to his partner.

He said that since the accident the company had make extensive investments to ensure such an accident never happens again. These included purchasing a crane stimulator to train staff in using cranes and initiating a system of weekly safety management meetings.

Counsel said he was instructed by his client to apologise to the family for their sorrow and distress and the role the company had played in the welder’s untimely death.

Imposing sentence, Judge Codd said the employer had breached its obligation to ensure employees are not put at unnecessary hazard. She said the absence of planning the task meant that equipment was not utilised as it should have been.

Judge Codd said the case was aggravated by there being a fatality and the devastating loss on the victim’s family, the over-reliance on the welder – who had been effectively left to assess the risks himself – and the failure to ensure equipment was utilised to secure the columns.

Imposing a fine of €850,000, Judge Codd placed the offence in the middle of the mid-range for offences of this nature. She said that in the absence of mitigation the appropriate fine would have been €1.5m. The mitigating factors were, she said, the guilty plea, the co-operation with the investigation, the company’s safety record and lack of previous convictions, the ”significant expenditure” to ensure this did not happen again. and the remorse shown by continuing to pay the victim’s salary.

Speaking after the case, HSA chief inspector, Mark Cullen said “It is important to ensure that company employees can manage and conduct all their work activities in a safe manner. In particular, as can be seen by this tragic case, it is important that safe systems of work are in place to ensure that persons carrying out their work are not at risk from falling objects.”

Speaking outside the court after the case, the deceased welder’s partner spoke of the family’s loss. She said he was a highly skilled and a very hard worker. She expressed the hope that nothing like this will ever happen to any other family. (DPP for HSA v Doyle Shipping Unlimited: Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, December 2020)

Source: Health and Safety Review