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.