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A small victory...

A month ago I reported on the case of Michael Adamson, an electrician who was electrocuted while working on a new sports facility in Dundee. This week, three senior employees of Mitie Engineering Services have been cleared of charges of neglect, though the company itself has been found guilty of breaching health and safety laws and faces heavy fines. The decision has angered people who feel that it once again proves how toothless the legal system is when it comes to work-related deaths…

Dundee Sheriff Court

Ian Tasker of the Scottish Trades Union Congress commented: "Yet again we witness a bereaved family left cheated by a justice system that appears powerless to punish those who take management decisions which place the lives of their workers at risk.

"Clearly a company is incapable of taking decisions on health and safety management and we believe statutory duties, not guidance, is required to ensure company directors and senior managers take their responsibilities seriously.”

One should not forget that the three employees have been cleared by the court, but it is understandable how difficult it must be for the bereaved that punishment for any wrongdoing will amount to a fine against a company, rather than imprisonment of an individual. Earlier this year I investigated the new Corporate Manslaughter Act which came into force in April. It was this part of the Act that I felt fell short, leaving it too easy for individuals to avoid responsibility by hiding behind a corporate logo.

Even though the majority of work-related deaths occur as a result of neglect rather than any malicious intent, those responsible should find it much harder than it currently is to slip through the net. It defies logic that someone can be responsible for another person's death, yet escape punishment because they happened to be at work at the time.

This case also highlights the importance for health and safety vigilance throughout the lifetime of a project. It’s easy to concentrate on safety at the beginning, but when things get tight towards deadline, standards can slip. Reducing the number of people working on a particular area may help get two things done at the same time, but if staff become stretched and make mistakes, the results can be devastating.

But perhaps it is most fitting to leave the last words to Mr. Adamson’s family: “We hope for the sake of all families like ours that never again will one of your employees leave home in a works' van and return in one belonging to an undertaker.

“So, to all who can make a difference to health and safety standards - be you a director, manager, supervisor or fellow employee and in whatever industry you operate - we urge you to take action before it's too late.”

Enjoy the newsletter,

Richard Scott

Your Comments:

Dear Richard,

I am not actively involved in the UK construction/FM industry anymore but every now and then I see something that is of interest. The case involving the death of an electrician in Dundee is one.

For background I trained as an electrical engineer in the Royal Navy many years ago, and generally held engineering posts within the FM sector. At one point I was the Senior Authorised Person for a major communications company.

I’m not sure how to structure this mail as I want to draw several threads to combine at the end as it were. I also want to be reasonably general so I am not being too definitive.

In the first instance, I am concerned with the extent to which Health & Safety has consumed all of us in a web of fear and blame. I don’t disagree that H&S is vitally important, but I have a problem when individuals use it to justify their own failings. Several examples spring to mind. I’m sure you can think of them too! The ambulance chasing culture which has grown from this attitude is rather distasteful, with the end result that people are too afraid to carry out risky ventures (school holiday trips??) etc.

Secondly, the issue of false ceilings is of interest. I recall some years ago an air-conditioning contractor receiving an electric shock working in a ceiling void installing and ACU. There was a cable which was live and no one was aware of it. The cable was live for one of 2 reasons. It was either an operational circuit which had somehow disconnected, or it was a cable that someone had left in an unsafe condition after doing work on the circuit. Either way, it was uninsulated and potentially lethal. The question I pose is this. How is anyone supposed to know that this cable is there and that there is a major hazard? (Every single part of a job cannot be supervised. Managers have to be able to trust the responsible people). The real answer is, look up into a ceiling void of any old installation. You cannot see anything for cables and pipes going in all directions, usually dark! and no company can be reasonably expected to dismantle all the ceiling and check every individual cable. Of course I appreciate that the installation we are discussing may have been new, but the principles remain the same.

This leads me to the third element. When I was working at sea, I was taught that the most important component of the electrical system was ME!! The rule was; one hand for the navy, one for you. (The ships I worked on had no earthing system). If I worked on any machine or cabling system of whatever voltage I automatically assumed it was exceptionally dangerous and I removed the fuses. The fuses were replaced, (by blanks coloured red), and placed in my pocket. I then checked first to see if it was live - I always assumed that I could have taken the wrong fuses out. I adapt similar principles today and still do my own electrical work when regulations permit!

The point I am rather laboriously trying to make is that the electrician should assume total responsibility for his and others safety in the working zone. I do not know the full details of this case but whenever I got a shock, it was my fault. The mistake was mine and mine alone. I could have said for example, that no-one issued me with insulated tools, and with a sound Health & Safety Act perhaps I could have got compensation…..but it would still have been my fault; because I am the person in control of what I do and what I touch.

Does the Health & Safety Act allow shoddy workmanship because the culture is now to blame the employer for any shortcoming leading to accident? I am sure that hundreds of electricians throughout the land would be up in arms at the suggestion. But each time poor individual safety standards are blamed on a third party the profession is weakened.

It is a terrible tragedy that a life has been lost, and emotions run high when the blame game starts. Blatant dangerous practices must be stamped out, and companies cannot be allowed to force personnel into dangerous, maybe life threatening situations. But no one will accept that they have made a mistake any more. It is always someone else’s fault, and companies are an easy target. I believe that it is time the principles of maintainer responsibility were brought back into the work place. I am sure that this would help to make things safer, and perhaps prevent more needless deaths.

Ray Chiverton

Javea, Spain

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