Forklift accidents highlight need for training by household names


The construction sector may feel that the never-ending stories of court cases are evidence of a problem exclusive to them. But if we turn our attention this once to the retail trade, then some recent cases involving household names have emphasised that the mightiest corporations are not immune from health and safety lapses.

These three cases all involve problems with fork lifts, which of course also figure largely in the construction safety arena.

Multinational giants IKEA were prosecuted when Philip Edgecombe, working at their Bristol store, suffered multiple injuries. He broke two bones in his left arm and his shoulder was dislocated. He was driving a forklift truck in the store when the mast of the truck hit a horizontal racking beam, causing him to fall off the truck and suffer the injuries.

At Bristol Magistrates Court, Ikea was fined the maximum fine of £20,000 on each of four health and safety counts, totalling £80,000, plus prosecution costs on behalf of Bristol City Council’s public health services department, costing them more than £8,000.

It is no surprise that the company pleaded guilty, because under the current laws it is always presumed to have failed in its duty of care towards the employee, even in cases where he or she fails to follow correct procedure. Firms are awaiting the detail of the new legislation that is aimed at lessening the corporate liability in cases where they can show that they have taken reasonable precautions and carried out risk assessments.

At B&Q, which is of course a supplier well-used by building trade firms, they suffered a double whammy when two forklift accidents happened in three weeks, both in stores in the Exeter area.

In May 2010 Steve Durrant was helping a forklift driver shift stock at the Alphington Road store. The truck hit some racking, causing a pallet containing bags of topsoil to topple from the top shelf, hitting Mr Durrant on the head. This caused him head injuries, and a broken arm and leg.

Exeter City Council, prosecuting, alleged that the forklift was too long for the space involved, and that the lighting levels in the aisles were insufficient. Exeter Crown Court agreed that the firm was to blame and fined them £10,000 for breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act plus £10,000 for breaching Regulation 3(1)(a) of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations.

In the second accident at the Sowton B&Q store in June 2010, Andrew White, a delivery company driver, was engaged in delivering stock and as his truck was being unloaded, a forklift reversed into him, breaking his toe and shattering two bones in his foot. The result is that he may never be able to walk normally again.

B&Q stated that according to their policy Mr White should have stayed inside his cab while the lorry was being unloaded, so it did have health and safety guidance in place. On the day however, he was not asked to do so.

Environmental Health Officers reviewing the case had been able to see CCTV footage of the incident as well as seeing earlier deliveries, which showed that it was a common practice at the store for drivers to climb out of their cabs: it was concluded that B&Q lacked a system to monitor what happened at store level.

B&Q was fined £20,000 for failing to ensure the safety of non-employees, under Section 3 of the HSW Act, and £20,000 for breaching Regulation 5 of the Management Regulations, as well as £25,370 in costs.

The chain admitted the offences but pointed out that it has 32,000 employees in 650 stores and that it would be ‘inappropriate to brand them as bad with regard to health and safety’ because of these incidents. At Sowton, it has since spent approximately £100,000 segregating yards and installing new CCTV.

Despite these mitigating circumstances, magistrates felt that the offences warranted greater punishment than the maximum permissible £20,000 fine they can impose for each offence. They referred the case to the Crown Court. But there the sentencing judge did not agree that a higher fine was merited.

Reading these cases, a building contractor may take some solace from the fact that the construction sector is not uniquely targeted by courts that are mostly business-averse. It is of course right that the injured parties should be protected, through insurance and re-employment where possible, but should the courts also pile on the financial burden and the bad publicity that come with such appearances?

If a firm, whether in the building or retail trades, is affected by the potential misuse of forklifts, they certainly need to get the right health and safety training for their operators as well as carrying out risk assessments and having a complete testing regime for the machines. McCormack Benson Health & Safety is able to supply a complete support service in all these areas.