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Safety Management in court for corporate manslaughter case

18 Feb

I was at Winchester Crown Court yesterday to hear the sentencing of Cotswold Geotechnic Holdings, the first company to be convicted of the new offence of corporate manslaughter. In 2008 27-year-old Alex Wright was killed when a trench collapsed on a development site in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

There was a sense of anticipation in the courtroom about hearing how the judge would set the level of the fine, as the case was the first of its kind. It became clear that it would be a difficult decision as Geotechnic was in a parlous financial situation and it was likely that any large fine would put the company, which employs four people, out of business.

However, the evidence showed that the company had ignored well-recognised industry guidance against working in unsupported pits more than 1.2 metres deep. The judge said that company director Peter Eaton “had thought that the rule was glib nonsense” and “that assumption was tragically and culpably misplaced”.

Summing up the case Mr Justice Field said: “Alex Wright was a young man of talent with a promising career”. He imposed a a fine of £385,000 to be paid over ten years, and said: “The impact of the fine on a company cannot be the determining factor as to the level. The fine must be fixed at a level which reflects the gravity of the offence, and sends out a clear message both generally and to those in the contraction and excavation businesses.

“The Sentencing Guidance Council says that generally fines for corporate manslaughter should be no less than £500,000, however there are individual circumstances and factors… It may well be that thus fine put the company into liquidation, which is unfortunate but inevitable.”

The judge did not order any payment of costs, which he would have done for companies operating at a larger size.

Outside the court, Alex’s Dad told me a bit about the son they lost: “He was just starting his life,” he said. “He’d just got to the end of his university career, had just got settled into one or two jobs doing what he wanted to do and the doors were starting to open for him. He’d reached the stage in his life when he was the most relaxed and happy and had found his partner Marlene, and it was looking very promising. Everything was just coming together for him and then this happened.”

Alex’s mother Shelley then read a statement:

My waste – whose business?

2 Feb

As well as looking at safety and health at work, here at Safety Management we’re also concerned with the ‘E’ in ‘SHE’. A lot of our readers also have responsibility for environmental management in their offices, warehouses, construction site or other workplaces and we want to help. What can you do to reduce the environmental impact of your work? Does just putting your waste into ‘recycling’ bags do enough?

Most workplaces these days have some sort of recycling practices in place: Although it’s not strictly a legal requirement to recycle the materials used in the workplace, the Pre-treatment of Waste legislation makes it more than a strong suggestion. More personally than this, individuals often just want to know that what they use is being re-used or recycled responsibility. For some, this ends with the sense of doing good they feel with putting paper in the recycling bin or Coke cans into the Becca Bins. Others, however, want to know more about what happens to all this stuff after it’s been sent to be ‘recycled’.

For an article in the March issue of Safety Management, I’ve been looking into the world of office recycling (arguably the biggest growth industry in the UK) an have made some interesting findings.

One striking division, in the world of recycling, is between those who promote ‘source separated’ recycling and those who pick up ‘comingled’ materials. London, for example, is a hotch potch – both in local authrities and private companies. Here in our west London office, where most of our waste is cleanish paper and drinks cans, we have the time and space to separate the junk ourselves into bags of ‘white paper’, ‘coloured paper’, ‘glass’ etc.

When I spoke to Lindsey, the operations manager at Paper Round – who pick up and distribute up SM’s recycling – she was proud to tell me about the ‘high quality’ of what they gather to recycle. Also, she said,  Paper Round operates mainly in the UK – or western Europe. She was also clear on the fact that the “around 2%” of  ‘unrecyclable’ material (ie. you dropped your teabag into the paper bin) they recive is not put into landfill, but sent to SECHP (South East London Combined Heat and Power Plant) to be incinerated, generating power for the national grid.

However, where I live in Tower Hamlets, east London – time and space is at a premium. There is a concentration of high rise living and English is not the first language to the majority of people in a lot of areas. This makes it much harder to get the message or practicalities of recycling across. Every fortnight, in my house, we put our recycling – bottles, cans, newspapers – into one single ‘pink bag’.

So, what happens to this ‘comingled’ recyling and is it really so much worse than ‘source separated’? I was impressed to see the technology they have at one east London Materials Recovery Facility to sort our mixed-up, pink bag waste:

Right now, Tower Hamlets Council are unforthcoming about the proportion of goods given for recycling which end up in landfill. It is clear, however, they they have bigger challenges that private companies that pick up from other private companies (like us) who pay for the privilege.

I need to find out more before the March Safety Management article is ready, but you might find it interesting that a lot of our mixed recycling is exported to China, and shipped back to us as new goods.

Can standing be safe? Football fans speak

17 Jan

Discontent is bubbling in the stands. Following the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989, the Taylor Report recommended all-seater stadia for the top two football divisions, which the government made mandatory. It was thought that seating would eventually be accepted by fans but this has not always been the case.

In December, Liberal Democrat MP Don Foster brought a bill before parliament to give all the clubs the freedom to build or maintain standing sections in their grounds if they choose. The Football Supporter’s Federation back the ideas with their Safer Standing campaign. Both Foster and the FSF claim that it is possible to reinstate standing without compromising on safety.

I am a complete outsider to the world of football so it’s nervously I enter an east London pub at half time in the Tottenham Hotspurs V Manchester United game yesterday to speak to fans about their opinions. I needed have worried as, once I explained what I want to talk about, most people were keen to give their views on a subject close to their hearts.

Ellie, 44, a Bristol Palace fan had a tale to tell of how she broke her arm at a game.

But Jack, 31, had fond memories of standing at Arsenal as a child.

And Everton fan Tony, 55, thought the lessons had now been learned from Heysel and Hillsborough.

Watch the interviews here:

A longer article about the question of safer standing will appear in February’s Safety Management.

Offshore Survival Part Two

5 Nov

As I promised yesterday, I can reveal that HUET stands for Helicopter Underwater Escape Training. This was probably the most exciting part of the offshore survival course, and involved us students being lowered into a swimming pool in a mocked-up helicopter. Helicopters are used to transport workers to North Sea oil rigs and although crashes into water are extremely rare, there were two such cases last year (in one case the crew were all killed and in the other were rescued), so it is important that workers are fluent in emergency procedures.

Here we are, bracing for impact:

The ‘helicopter’ is then rotated, or capsized:

Although being strapped into a seat, underwater, upside-down is a terrifying situation, the training we had been given yesterday prepared us to make our escape as calmly and quickly as possible. We were told to, with one hand, locate our window; and with the other, our belt buckle (visibility under the sea would be almost zero).

Here I am, after punching out my window:

In our survival suits, we then had to squeeze out of the windows and swim to the surface. We did a number of different drills, including with breathing apparatus, which is not comfortable but can buy valuable seconds of life. I escaped!:

As well at the HUET, the course gave us basic training in first aid, fire fighting, life crafts and an introduction to the offshore industry.

The mood among the group of students and trainees has been generally light-hearted, but when our instructor speaks about the Piper Alpha oil rig fire in 1988 – which killed 167 men – the atmosphere quietens and everyone remembers why we are here. Offshore oil and gas is one of the most dangerous industries in the world, so this type of in-depth (literally, in this case), training is required. However, safety professionals in all industries could learn a lot from the practical, interactive training given on the BOSIET course.

For more about my offshore survival training, see December’s Safety Management magazine.

Offshore Survival Part One

4 Nov

Being winched into a helicopter from a stormy sea, with a survival suit dragging me down, was not where I imagined a job on Safety Management magazine would lead me.

Luckily, both the waves and the chopper were simulations. But the safety equipment and procedures were very real.

In the wake of the disaster on BP’s oil rig Deepwater Horizon earlier in the year (where 11 people died) and some less-than-encouraging HSE stats about unwanted hydrocarbon releases in the North Sea, the safety standards of the offshore gas and oil industry are once again a hot topic. So I have been sent to take the three-day BOSIET (Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training) course that everyone – from cleaners to top CEOs – must undergo before being allowed out on an oil rig.

In the Teesside training centre, I am the only female in a group of 12 students. But their maleness is the only thing they share: they range from a long-serving OIMs (Oil Installation Manager) here to top up his qualification for the forth time, to a young Polish engineer who needs to go onto an oil rid to control sea-bed robots. There is also a man who has been long-term unemployed, resentful about having to pay the high course costs himself just to get back in the job market.

Our jovial Geordie instructor is full of nuggets of information such as the fact that “women and children first” is a misnomer, since, in cold water, we are likely to survive longer – or be revived more successfully – than men. There has been a lot of information to take in  – but the instructors prefer us to learn practically – hence the swimming pool dunks.

I have a lot more to tell you about what I’ve been up to: particularity what HUET stands for (clue: it’s thrilling) and some psychology about how humans act in a fire situations at sea. But for now I’ll leave you with a photo of me in my survival suit this morning: