Multi-national engineering firm fined £300,000 over North Sea radiation leak

Schlumberger website

An offshore industry firm has been fined £300,000 at Aberdeen Sheriff Court after workers on a North Sea installation were placed at risk of exposure to radiation.

Schlumberger Oilfield UK admitted breaching health and safety laws on a rig about 210 miles east of Dundee during a drill programme in 2008. Radioactive material was left lying on the drill floor for about four hours, during which time 14 workers were placed at risk of exposure.

Schlumberger had been contracted to undertake work as part of a Maersk drilling programme for the Cawdor well.

Elaine Taylor, head of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service’s health and safety division, said: “This wholly avoidable incident could have had devastating consequences for the workers involved in the operation.”

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Insp Gillian Rodaks said:

“Loss of control of any radioactive source is extremely serious, particularly of the size involved in this incident, and it was only by good fortune that the source was recovered in a relatively short period of time. Had someone held it, even just for a few minutes, they would have received a significant radiation dose which may have resulted in injuries to their hands and increased their risk of developing cancer in later life.This case should serve to remind employers and employees, whether in industry, medicine or research, of the need to be constantly vigilant when working with radioactive sources.”

Although Lord Young has gone, his legacy in the shape of his deeply flawed report and recommendations to government on the compensation culture lives on. Our key concern is that with HSE budget cuts here to stay, employers and contractors on North Sea oil and gas installations will be tempted to relax their vigilence and monitoring of health and safety standards. When international firms are found guilty of “wholly avoidable” breaches of health and safety legislation in a particularly hazardous and dangerous working environment we have to question the operating culture of these global organisations and the true extent of their committment to worker safety. 

We can only hope that this fine will encourage Sclumberger and other firms active in the North Sea to improve their standards and ensure that negligence, laziness, ignorance or indifference have no part to play out on the rigs.  

Bonnar & Company Solicitors specialises in hazardous workplace accident claims. Please contact us free of charge on 0800 163 978 if you have been hurt or injured or developed an industrial illness or disease during the course of your employment.

McDonalds prosecuted over acid injury to worker

Fast food giant McDonalds has paid out more than £20,000 after one of its employees was partially blinded by an acid-based cleaner.

According to Wandsworth Council, the court fine was the result of the first successful prosecution against McDonalds in the UK over an accident in the workplace.

The burger chain was taken to court by the council under safety at work laws after a member of staff suffered burns to his face and eyes that has left him with only around 55 per cent vision in his left eye. The injuries were caused when the man, who was working as a maintenance operative at the company’s Wandsworth Bridge drive-thru restaurant, used an acid-based drain cleaner to unblock a waste pipe.

Last month, South Western magistrates court heard that on June 23, 2008, the employee, with the full knowledge of his manager, bought a corrosive chemical drain cleaner from a nearby DIY store. The first attempt at using the sulphuric acid-based cleaner did not work and so the employee was given money by a manager to buy a second bottle. When this bottle was poured into the pipe, its contents blew back into the employee’s face and both his eyes. He was given first aid at the scene before being taken to hospital by ambulance.

Following treatment he recovered almost all the vision in his right eye but much less in his left eye.

The council’s environment spokesman Councillor Sarah McDermott said: “Their member of staff was given money by his managers to buy a very hazardous product.

“No risk assessment was carried out to ensure this product was safe to use, he was not properly supervised while using it, he was not given any training to reduce the risk of an accident, nor was he provided with protective clothing. This was a serious lapse in the company’s internal procedures.”

A spokesman for McDonalds said: “We are very sorry for the eye injury incurred by our staff member. We regret that on this occasion our stringent safety procedures were not followed and we have taken steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

So, despite Lord Young’s pronouncement that retail environments are basically low risk and his recommendation to government that employers should be allowed to cut back on risk assessment, reality bites back in the shape of a partially blinded worker.

If highly successful ‘public spirited’ firms are committing such breaches of health and safety legislation, we fear for the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of workers employed by small firms when our government seems hell-bent on allowing a laissez-faire attitude to health and safety issues to prevail.

If you have been hurt or injured at work please contact us for a completely free, no obligation review of your case on 0800 163 978.

£20,000 asbestos fine imposed on John Lewis ‘low hazard’ workplace

High street retailer John Lewis PLC was yesterday handed a fine of £20,000 for failing to do proper checks for deadly asbestos while carrying out refurbishment work at a city department store.

In a case which gives the lie to Lord Young’s recent assertion that offices present a low hazard risk to health and safety, Edinburgh Sheriff Court heard renovation work was being carried out over four days at the management suite of the retailer’s store at the city’s St James Centre in July 2008 when asbestos was discovered at a board between two radiators.

Workers covered it in a bag and reported it to management before a check was carried out. The board was sent for analysis but work was allowed to continue when the site should have been shut down. It was only when the results came back positive that the project was halted. The court heard around 15 workers could potentially have been exposed to the harmful substance.

Sheriff Elizabeth Jarvie QC today also fined contractors Morris and Spottiswood Ltd £20,000 and added that she had reduced both fines from £30,000 to reflect the guilty pleas. However, she went on to say: “This was a serious and disturbing case but in any event no-one sustained any harm. As soon as discovery was made effective and immediate action was taken by the companies.”

Fair enough?

Well sorry no, not really and here’s why. Far from ‘no-one sustaining any harm’, the reality is that asbestos is an invidious, invasive and life-threatening substance which, if even a single fibre is inhaled, can cause cancer in the victim, a fact borne out by the 4,000 plus deaths from asbestos-related cancer each year in the UK.

Are we missing the point here? Lord Young has chosen to completely ignore the fact that ANY WORKPLACE HAS THE POTENTIALTO BE HAZARDOUS OR INJURIOUS TO HEALTH.

It is quite astonishing that a government funded report can blandly state that: ‘low hazard workplaces are those where the risk of injury or death is minimal. These include shops, offices and classrooms…’

Perhaps the HSE should have made Lord Young aware of its own research on asbestos-related deaths before rushing to endorse his various ill-judged pronouncements on the relative dangers of ‘low hazard’ workplaces.

John Lewis PLC and Morris and Spottiswood each admitted three charges under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

If you have been exposed to asbestos or any substance injurious to your health and wish to discuss your case, please contact us on FREEPHONE 0800 163 978.

The shape of things to come? – £1 fine for construction site death

Days after Lord Young’s report found that British industry is ‘burdened by unnecessary health and safety laws’, we are astounded and dismayed to learn that a Lancashire company has been fined just £1 over the death of a worker who fell 20ft when faulty scaffolding collapsed.

Peter Walton’s widow Christine said the punishment was ‘an appalling joke’. Mrs Walton is also unhappy that Howorth’s has been allowed to pay back the fine at £1,000 a month to ‘allow the company to exist’. After the sentencing she said:

“To say that I am appalled and shocked with the sentences is an understatement. Just £1 for my husband’s life is awful. Not only are the fines pitiful but it sends the completely wrong message out to the construction industry. In my opinion the system has shown that more worth has been put on preventing the firms going into administration than on my husband’s life, by imposing pathetic fines which in no way reflect the seriousness of the situation.”

The scaffolding at a development in Altham collapsed because a nut had not been tightened correctly. The court heard that other blunders included the scaffolding being erected on broken concrete, being too far from the building and not having a guard rail.

Gordon Birtwistle, Burnley MP, backed Mrs Walton and said: “The fine is an insult and makes a mockery of the prosecution. Mrs Walton has been left without a husband but this company has barely even been given a slap on the wrists.”

Glen  Mill was the principal contractor at the site and the scaffolding contractors were Howorth’s. Mr Walton, 55, of Thorton Cleveleys, had been employed by another sub-contractor, New Look. He suffered severe head injuries in the fall in May 2006 and died in the arms of his wife in hospital five weeks later. Mr Walton had been in a coma and never regained consciousness.

Last month Glen Mill managing director Peter Shearer appeared at court with Ian Howorth, boss of Howorth Scaffolding, to admit health and safety breaches. Both firms had earlier pleaded guilty before magistrates to a charge of exposing to risk persons not in their employment, in a prosecution brought by the Health and Safety Executive.

Judge Woolman said: “Glen Mill had been hit by the recession, had no real assets and had hardly traded since 2007. I am satisfied that the company does not have ready money to pay a large fine and that any fine will have to be paid out of future profits.”

The judge allowed Howorth’s to pay at £1,000 a month, to “allow the company to exist”.

After the case, HSE Inspector Ian Connor said: “This is an extremely sad case which once again shows how important it is to follow health and safety regulations. It’s vital that construction companies do more to prevent deaths and injuries in the future.”

This tragic case is a reminder that construction sites are inherently dangerous, not inherently safe and that constant care and vigilence is needed to safeguard lives.

Not only did Mr Walton die as a result of someone’s negligence, we are very concerned that the court was minded to ‘excuse’ the failures to ensure his safety at work on commercial grounds. It is extremely worrying that this attitude chimes perfectly with the approach taken by Lord Young in his report on the so-called ‘Compensation Culture’ in which he seeks to reduce industry’s ‘cost burden’ of compliance with UK health and safety legislation.

In our opinion this judgement could be the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ if courts rush to embrace the mantra that our hard-won health & safety legislation can be set aside to suit employers’ financial constraints. If this is indeed the shape of things to come, then all construction site workers in the UK are going to be placed at greater risk in the future as the industry struggles to deal with public sector budget cuts and the increasing pressure to get the job done.

When we factor in a 35% reduction in the HSE budget, which will  result in fewer site inspections and therefore greater risk of cost cutting by employers, the message being sent out here is that not only can the construction industry duck its responsibilities by pleading poverty, the chances of being caught breaching the regulations are set to reduce significantly.

Bonnar & Company specialises in personal injury claims on behalf of all construction workers. We help direct employees, sub-contractors, the self-employed and apprentices achieve justice and financial compensation. For a free, no obligation review of your claim please contact us today on 0800 163 978.