Hazardous lifting operation costs a man’s life


In large projects, construction safety in the UK is generally well-managed and comprehensive checks and balances are put in place to guard against accidents. This was the case in the building of an extension to Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, in November 2008: yet tragically the weather and lapses in planning and work supervision combined to take a man’s life.

The large contracting firm Bouygues UK Ltd was the principal contractor for the project.

At the time of the incident, a tower crane (one of 4 on the site) was lifting concrete beams up to the top of supporting towers in the structure.

Two banksmen were engaged in fixing the beams in place, 3 metres above ground level. They had to unhook the lifting chains from a 7 metre-long beam that had been lifted into position.

Tower crane moved by high wind

It was a very windy day, with wind speeds gusting over 72km/hr (the safe operating limit of the crane). A big gust caused the slew brakes to slip and the crane to move. It swung the still-attached beam around and crushed one of the banksmen, Mr de Oliveira, between the beam and a tower, and he was killed.

This was not a case of faulty or inadequate equipment: the cranes on site were all equipped with sensors to measure wind speed and warn when it exceeded certain levels:

  1. amber warning – 50 km/h or higher
  2. red warning – 72km/h or higher

These sensors were linked to a site office PC so that managers could monitor the data and help them to supervise the crane lifting.

The weakness in the system was that it was unsupervised at the time of the accident. Crane operators also had their in-cab wind speed displays and they were on this site permitted to assess by themselves whether to stop lifting. Thus they would not automatically stop when the wind exceeded the limits.

Mr de Oliveira was an Portugese agency worker but of course Bouygues had a duty of care for his well-being.

The judge at Chelmsford Crown Court was not convinced that the death came as a direct result of the company’s actions: he may have considered that the gust of wind happened after the lift of the beam had taken place and nothing could have been done to stop the crane flexing at that moment.

However, he did decide that the Bouygues managers were guilty of inadequate planning and supervision of the work, and could maybe have reviewed the worsening weather conditions and stopped operations. What happened was described as a ‘systemic failure’ to assess this risk.

As a result the company received a fine of £175,000 plus £80,000 in costs due to a breach of Regulation 8 of the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations.

If you want to review your lifting operations for their suitability and risk prevention, contact McCormack Benson Health and Safety. And for an overview, visit this page: