A Norfolk company that owned the site where four labourers were crushed to death under 13 tonnes of steel has today been fined £500,000.
Peter Johnson, 42, brothers Daniel Hazelton, 30, and Thomas Hazelton, 26, all of Stanton, and Adam Taylor, 28, of Rickinghall, were killed on January 21, 2011, when a large steel pressure testing cage they were working in at Claxton Engineering, in Great Yarmouth, collapsed.
Two companies and a director were prosecuted in connection with their deaths and sentenced today at the Old Bailey.
The court heard that conditions were dangerously cramped but one boss said: “They’re professionals and should be left to get on with it.”
The metal cage had stood 6ft 5ins tall, but was reduced to just nine inches after the accident.
All four men had been building the structure from the inside and had no means of escape if anything went wrong.
Claxton had not bothered to hire a structural engineer until less than a month before work began.
It had also failed to hire a qualified coordinator required by law under the Construction Design and Management (CDM) Regulations.
Today, Claxton, of North River Road, Great Yarmouth, was fined £500,000 and ordered to pay £100,000 in court costs after admitting a breach under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Its sub-contractor, Encompass Project Management, of Old Market Street, Thetford, was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay £50,000 in court costs after admitting a similar breach.
Encompass’s director, David Groucott, 44, of Hinderclay Road, Rickinghall – who offered to act as CDM coordinator when he had no understanding of the regulations – was handed a seven-and-a-half month jail term suspended for two years.
He was also ordered to complete 200 hours of unpaid work for a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Claxton makes components for the off-shore oil and gas industry and was in the process of building two enormous units to test their products under pressure.
It hired Encompass Project Management who in turn employed the contractor’s firm Hazegood Construction to carry out the groundworks and build the steel reinforcing cage.
The huge vertical pressure unit had already been installed, but the four victims were in the process of fitting the cage to house the horizontal unit.
The unit was designed to apply 150 tonnes of pressure in controlled conditions.
The cage was set in a two metre foundation and was 23 metres in length with metal passage ways only a foot wide that workmen were forced to squeeze down.
Conditions were so cramped that on the morning of the accident Groucott joked to Thomas Hazelton: “I bet you’re glad you went on that diet now Tom.”
All the building contractors on site, the fire service and a 16 tonne crane were unable to free the men.
Eventually a 60 tonne crane had to be borrowed from a neighbouring business.
A pathologist found that all four men died of traumatic asphyxiation.
Passing sentence, Mr Justice Baker said safety on the site had been extremely lax, and work had begun on the foundations with no edge protection in place.
It was later installed but only partially, and even that was incorrectly fitted.
Mr Justice Baker said: “All of the deceased suffered painful and frightening deaths. The impact on their families has been profound.
“Claxton, despite having been warned at an early stage, failed to acquaint itself with the requirements of the CDM regulations and failed to take the steps to ensure that Encompass discharged that role.
“Encompass had no competency to perform its role under the CBM regulations and Claxton had no reason to believe that it was competent.
“It failed to ensure that sufficiently detailed documentation, including a CDM plan was in place.”
He added that Encompass was not even sufficiently experienced to perform the role of principal contractor, and had only been hired because of Groucott’s personal links with senior managers at Claxton.
“I am satisfied that the failure to appoint a structural engineer until a month before construction commenced or to fully acquaint itself with its obligations under the CDM regulations was in some measure due to a reluctance to provide expenditure on them.
“I’m quite satisfied that the failures admitted by David Groucott and Encompass represented a significant cause of death of the deceased.
“I am quite satisfied that had Claxton properly fulfilled its role, these deaths could have been averted.”
The four workmen had been holding up the thick metal bars forming the superstructure of the cage in the cramped conditions while connecting them with wire and a pair of pliers.
The court heard that when Groucott was asked about escape routes for the workers he said they were some professionals and should be left to get on with it. It was on that afternoon the cage collapsed.
Encompass admitted one count of failing to discharge a duty to persons other than employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Groucott admitted a similar charge of failing to discharge a duty.
Claxton initially denied any wrong doing, but pleaded guilty to one breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act on the first day of trial at Norwich Crown Court earlier this month (May).
Health and safety charges against the third sub-contractor, Hazegood Construction Ltd, were left to lie on file.
The court heard that a CDM Coordinator – a legal requirement under construction regulations – had not been appointed and at various stages of the design process this section of the paperwork had been left blank, until at the last moment Groucott said he would take on the role himself.
He accepted he did not perform any of the necessary functions of a CDM coordinator.
Neither had a structural engineer been appointed to oversee the project from design to construction.
Instead, Claxton and Encompass had approached various companies for quotes, and had last paid for structural advice in autumn of 2010.
Encompass had also breached Health and Safety regulations three times before starting work at the site.
One involved workers building a block of timber flats with no escape route in the event of a fire and another involved the collapse of a metal platform supporting construction workers.