British Telecommunications plc (BT) has been fined £1/2 million and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £98,913 after an engineer was seriously injured in a fall from a loft in a tower block in East London. The penalty came just 17 days after BT was fined £600,000 following two falls from stepladders (see Tetra news, 14 June 2016).
David Spurgeon was fixing a telephone fault in the roof void of a block of flats in Tower Hamlets in May 2011. After he lost his balance, he fell through the ceiling onto a concrete stairwell and broke his back. He subsequently had to retire on medical grounds. The block was run by Tower Hamlets Homes, which is a not-for-profit company that delivers housing services for 21,000 Tower Hamlets Council homes.
The investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found inadequacies in BT’s planning of work near fragile surfaces. It had failed to supervise the work and to check that it was carried out safely. There were two distribution points in the loft and BT did not have sufficient provisions for identifying and recording their location.
BT provided its engineers with fire brigade keys in case they needed access to the restricted area and then required them to make an on-site risk assessment. It did make it clear to the engineers that they should not work on unboarded surfaces, but instead report their presence to a manager. In order to make the assessment, however, the engineers needed to access the loft, while neither the manager responsible for worker safety, nor the auditor for the work, had been trained to work in lofts.
The HSE charged BT with failing to ensure the safety of its employees. BT contested the charge, claiming that it had provided robust training and monitoring, and that Mr Spurgeon had not followed its procedures. It was, however, convicted by an Old Bailey jury after a trial that lasted from 11 to 26 April 2016. Sentencing on 13 June 2016, Judge John Bevan criticised BT for trying to blame its engineers and avoid responsibility in an “unfortunate way”. BT’s approach, he said, was “not necessary” and was “misplaced and unfortunate”.