The death of a pedestrian next to the Mander shopping centre in Wolverhampton has highlighted the need for managing agents of buildings to identify all parts of buildings under their control. Without implementing a system that ensures full identification, managing agents will not be able to ensure that all parts of buildings are routinely risk assessed, inspected and maintained. As a result of the fatal incident, the building’s managing agent was fined £1.333 million and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £375,000.
It is important to note that the incident did not involve a rogue organisation with a poor health and safety approach. The managing agent is a commercial property and real estate consultant that manages hundreds of properties across the UK. Until the Mander Centre incident, it had a good health and safety record and believed that its health and safety and maintenance procedures at the centre were effective and legally compliant. The agent’s responsibilities at the centre included risk assessments, routine inspections and arranging maintenance, works and repairs, which were carried out within its property and health and safety management systems that were accredited to international standards, OHSAS 18001 and ISO9001. In addition, the consultancy that it engaged to carry out risk assessments specialised in “bespoke property related health and safety risk management solutions”.
The fatal incident occurred on 23 February 2017. As Tahnie Martin walked near the Mander shopping centre, she was struck by a wooden panel that a storm had blown from the plant room roof of one of the centre’s buildings. The City of Wolverhampton Council’s investigation found that the managing agent had failed to identify, inspect or maintain two brick structures on top of the plant room roof: a former ventilation shaft that had a wooden louvered hood; and a disused water tank topped with a large wooden panel structure. As a result, rot caused by weathering had corroded the fixtures that held the hood and panel in place. Three-yearly decoration would have avoided the extensive rot.
Sentencing the managing agent on 2 July at Wolverhampton Crown Court, Mrs Justice Carr said she found it “extremely difficult to see how” the company’s staff “could not have noticed the existence of the structures on the plant room roof at any time between September 2012 and February 2017”. If the failure was genuine, it suggested “no, or only the most cursory, safety assessment of the top roof of a large building in a busy shopping centre”. If the structures were not seen, Judge Carr believed that “no one can have been looking at the plant room roof at all. The fact that this was possible highlights starkly the inadequacy of the company’s risk assessment systems and inspection procedures. In the five years during which the company had been managing agent for the building, no inspection or maintenance of any sort was carried out on the structures on the plant room roof.”
In short, said Judge Carr, the managing agent had “multiple opportunities” from inhouse and out-of-house reports, visits, surveys and works “to identify, inspect and commission the necessary maintenance works to the structures on the plant room roof”. While it had put in place systems to make the building safe, they were inadequate in respect of the two structures.
Judge Carr added that the managing agent placed too much reliance on its operations manager at the Mander Centre, “given his limited previous experience in similar roles”. The manager oversaw health and safety management, which involved ensuring that inspections were carried out and that the results were acted upon. He had no formal professional qualifications but had worked previously as a site manager and a plant engineer. Although he had taken a course on managing safety in property management and was supervised by one of the agent’s experienced associates, the agent had failed to supervise and monitor him appropriately and to check his misassumption that the plant room roof was flat with no structures or plant on it.