HSE –v- Phil Watson Civil Engineering Limited (PWCEL) 2012
The recent prosecution of PWCEL should be a timely reminder to us all of the very high cost of failing adequately to plan and control every aspect of working in excavated areas, on any scale.
PWCEL failed to implement any effective management procedures and controls to ensure that materials remained stable, and their employees safe.
Former England kick-boxer Zak Davis was employed by PWCEL to lay drainage pipes when the trench within which he was working collapsed suddenly, causing him life-changing injuries.
Following a thorough investigation by the Health and Safety Executive, PWCEL were prosecuted and severely criticised for failing to assess the serious risks involved in this hazardous operation and for overlooking essential training and other safety measures. It appeared that they gave no thought at all to the use of trench boxes, shuttering or any other effective support methods. A number of factors dictate the most appropriate methods to use, including the measurement of the trench, its location and the nature and duration of the work.
PWCEL had no option other than to admit an offence contrary to Regulation 31(1) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007, and was extremely fortunate to receive a fine of only £10,000 together with costs of £2,141. The Magistrates believed that the company would be forced into administration if the financial penalty had been any higher, with loss of livelihood for a number of employees who were in no way responsible for the management failure.
PWCEL and its directors can reflect upon their extreme good fortune in having avoided a much more severe penalty, potentially disqualification proceedings and even imprisonment.
Trench collapses are frequently fatal for anyone working within them. Unless proper planning, assessment, control and training has been effectively undertaken, then a jury is likely to conclude that there has been a “management failure” and in the event of a fatality, a conviction under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 is almost inevitable.
In the landmark case of HSE v Cotswold Geotechnical Limited last year, a trial pit collapsed with fatal consequences and the defendant company was fined a ruinous £395,000. (Almost ten times its turnover). The sole director of the company only escaped personal liability by demonstrating he was terminally ill.
Even in non-fatal cases, if it can be shown that the collapse was caused in circumstances where a director knew or ought to have known of the risks, then he or she could be imprisoned for up to two years, disqualified as a director and/or fined up to £20,000.
Senior directors need to understand their exposure in the event of a breach of any Regulations and the need to ensure that they take all practical measures to protect their employees and others from harm and themselves from imprisonment, financial penalties and/or disqualification.
For more information, help or advice on business protection please contact Jonathan Dunkley.