Unsafe basement work leads to crippling injury


As we have sadly been forced to report on in the past, there are more ways than one to be ‘working at height’ – and those include the cases where people have to operate over underground voids.

Risks like this are, if anything, becoming more common because the high cost of land, especially in London, is making homeowners and developers look at ways of enlarging existing buildings within their existing envelope – and with increasing controls being placed on loft conversions and extra storeys, the only other way is down – into the basement.

Unguarded Void

The Grove Park, London-based project in question here was to convert two old 19th century hostels into four individual town houses. Thus there was demolition work to do, followed by refurbishment as well as new building within the site.

Habitat Construction LLP of Southwark, South London, was the principal contractor on site in July 2011. Its work team removed windows from the old structure in what HSE described as “an ad-hoc and uncontrolled manner”. Because this happened from time to time without a plan, there were no protections put in place each time against falling through the newly-created spaces. These were left gaping for up to 6 weeks.

Many of these window voids were at a raised ground/1st floor level, which on the face of it would not seem overly dangerous: but in some cases there was a straight fall risk that went right down to the basement.

One worker was connecting up a temporary power supply when he accidentally fell through one of these window gaps and plunged some 8 metres onto the concrete basement floor.

The HSE investigators found much to criticise when they made their report. The unnecessary risks taken by Habitat Construction included:

  1. Using insufficient basic netting (that would not arrest a fall) around a deep excavation hole
  2. Removing windows without installing fall protection (like guard rails or boards) in front of them
  3. Risking danger to subcontractors working below by failing to protect them from falling items

Worker paralysed by injury

The unnamed worker (38) was paralysed by the accident from the waist downwards due to spinal cord damage. Now, nearly three years later, he is wheelchair-bound: he cannot walk or work and has to deal with terrible physical and emotional trauma.

As a result, Habitat Construction was ordered by Southwark Crown Court to pay a large fine and costs, totalling £126,000. As so often is the case, the verdict was that this fall was eminently preventable and should not have happened.

No contractors want this to happen to any of their workers. If you want to review the basic safety measures for working safely at height, you can read them here. Additionally, you can take practical measures to ensure that your risk assessment, method statements and actual working practices are up to scratch, by seeking the guidance of experienced construction safety consultants from McCormack Benson Health and Safety. Their advice can be invaluable: and by helping you work smarter, they can actually save you time and money on site, as well as avoiding accidents like this one.