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Leeds engineering firm sentenced after death of worker

Date:
5 July 2013

A specialist engineering company in Leeds has been ordered to pay £377,500 in fines and costs after protracted safety failings led to the death of a worker from fatal head injuries caused by a powered valve.

Graham Britten, 46, was carrying out maintenance in a vacuum casting furnace at AETC Ltd in Yeadon when the main isolation valve closed suddenly, trapping his head. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The incident, on 4 November 2009, was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which prosecuted the company for a serious breach of safety legislation.

Leeds Crown Court was told today (5 July) that HSE uncovered repeated failings by AETC Ltd that had put many employees at risk of death or injury for several years.

Mr Britten, of Kippax, was a maintenance fitter for AETC Ltd, which manufactures products for the aerospace and power generation industries and is part of American company PCC Airfoils.

He had gone to a furnace with a colleague to fix a fault after the main isolation valve had become jammed part-way while closing. The furnace comprises two chambers separated by the large sliding isolation valve. Mr Britten was standing on the rising table within the lower furnace chamber inspecting the valve when it suddenly closed, causing fatal head injuries.

HSE established that AETC Ltd did not have an effective isolation procedure for maintenance work on the furnace; had failed to act for several years on repeated recommendations from their own Corporate Health and Safety Manager; and had failed to adequately train and supervise maintenance staff.

The court was told that the lack of a consistent, monitored isolation policy resulted in there being no effective procedures in place to prevent Mr Britten entering the chamber without first isolating the equipment and releasing stored energy.

As well as a lack of effective procedures to ensure safety during maintenance work, the investigation also revealed that the furnace control systems, intended to protect operators when carrying out routine cleaning within the furnace chambers, were inadequate and exposed them to unnecessary risk.

AETC Ltd of Victoria Avenue, Yeadon, was fined £300,000 and ordered to pay £77,500 in costs after pleading guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

In sentencing, Judge T Bayliss QC said:

"At the time of the accident there was no robust system in place to ensure safety during maintenance. It was left to the discretion of the fitters. It was, I’m sorry to say, a shambles."

After sentencing, HSE Inspector Dr Angus Robbins said:

"There were two issues here. Firstly, the furnace operators routinely climbed into the furnace to clean, thinking that when the furnace doors were open the valve could not move. This was not the case and they were continually at risk.

"Secondly, there was no safe system for maintenance work. There were no isolation procedures and, as a result, the fitters developed their own methods of working. The maintenance work that Mr Britten was carrying out was not unforeseen and the jamming of the isolation valve was a recurring problem which ATEC knew about.

"When the valve jammed, air pressure continued to build up in the cylinder that drives the valve such that, when the jam was cleared, the stored energy caused the valve to close rapidly with tragic consequences.

"Safe isolation procedures with training, supervision and monitoring would have prevented Mr Britten’s needless death."

The latest statistics from HSE for 2011/12 show that there were 31 deaths, more than 3,400 major injuries and some14,000 minor injuries recorded within the manufacturing industries. For advice and information go to www.hse.gov.uk/manufacturing.

Notes to editors

  1. The Health and Safety Executive is Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety. It aims to reduce work-related death, injury and ill health. It does so through research, information and advice; promoting training; new or revised regulations and codes of practice; and working with local authority partners by inspection, investigation and enforcement. www.hse.gov.uk
  2. Section 2(1)of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 states: : "It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees."

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