John Pointon & Sons Ltd has been fined £250,000 after hydrogen sulphide, which is produced by rotting carcasses, overcame a worker inside an animal waste trailer. Two of the worker’s colleagues were also overcome as they attempted to rescue him. The fine amounts to one fifth of the company’s 2014 operating profit of almost £1.2 million.
The incident occurred at John Pointon & Sons Ltd’s food waste disposal and recycling facility in Cheddleton, Staffordshire. On 23 April 2014, William James, a shunter driver, was emptying animal waste and carcasses from a twin compartment waste trailer. He had tipped the contents of the rear compartment into a hopper, with the tarpaulin covering the trailer. In order to empty the front compartment, he rolled back the tarpaulin but found a carcass between the two compartments. He climbed down and removed the carcass but, as he climbed onto the trailer’s sidewall, he became disorientated and fell back into the rear compartment, losing consciousness.
A colleague, Tomasz Lawinski, heard his cry and climbed into the rear compartment but, as he climbed out, he became dizzy and fell more than three metres to the floor outside the trailer. A third worker, Steven White, entered the compartment but was then unable to climb down the outside of the trailer, and instead clung on until he was pulled off. Mr James suffered head wounds and Mr Lawinski spent five days in hospital.
The investigation by the Health and Safety Executive confirmed that there was increased hydrogen sulphide and a decreased oxygen concentration in the waste compartments. The company had not carried out a risk assessment of the compartments because it had not considered them to be confined spaces. An assessment would have been “fundamental” in identifying the presence of the confined spaces and then introducing controls, including a ban on entering compartments that contained animal waste. The company has revised the risk assessments, ensured workers are familiar with the new systems of work, and introduced cleaning equipment that does not involve workers entering trailers that had not been cleaned.
John Pointon & Son Ltd admitted failing to ensure its employees’ safety and was fined £250,000 at Stafford Crown Court on 10 June 2016. Judge Michael Chambers said the risks from hydrogen sulphide were well known to the company, not least because of an earlier fatality that had resulted in a fine of £660,000 in 2015. It should have carried out a full risk assessment covering the whole process, and it should also have been aware that tarpaulins were left in place during tipping and that workers were accessing the compartments. The company had previously been fined £460,000 for a death in 2004.