Construction safety investigation as worker dies on M25 project

Construction safety investigation

It is tragic when a worker dies. All the more so when a firm has actually put the basic safety mechanisms in place, but due to changing circumstances they become insufficient.

The M25 motorway around London has long required extra lanes, and the widening work was being carried out at Junction 29 near Upminster, Essex, on the eastern stretch, in October 2010. It required the existing motorway embankment to be dug away and rebuilt. In charge of this work was J McArdle Contracts Ltd., from Slough.

Lorry and bulldozer movements

Mr. Mihai Hondru (39) was employed by this company. He had to direct the lorries (that were loaded with soil) to the right place on the embankment before they could tip their load.

At the same time that he was doing this a bulldozer was in operation, leveling the resulting mounds of soil. Its operator was Stephen Blackmore.

While Mr Hondru concentrated on assisting a lorry driver to get into the correct place, the bulldozer reversed and crushed him. He died on site, from his many injuries.

Unusually, the HSE did not exclusively put the blame on the contractor. Instead they jointly prosecuted the firm and the excavator driver. They found that he was at fault in not taking account of Mr. Hondru’s presence, very close by. Mr. Blackmore failed to ensure that he knew exactly where his colleague was. Instead he made the assumption that either he was not in danger: or he would move out of harm’s way when the bulldozer reversed. These were reckless assumptions.

Risk Assessment was made

This is not a case where a contractor was guilty of making no construction safety provisions. As you would expect on such a major project, J McArdle Contracts had made a proper risk assessment. This resulted in a safe system of working, using a one-way traffic system that reduced to a minimum the risks that pedestrians would be hit by vehicle movements.

Sadly, as is often the case, the situation changed as the project progressed, but the method of working was not amended to suit the new circumstances. On the very day that the accident happened, new ground conditions were encountered. This situation required lorries to reverse close to the (also reversing) bulldozer. The safety precautions for pedestrian workers were not stepped up to meet the new, more dangerous environment.

Failure to amend procedures and be vigilant

Thus the contractor needed to react and step up the safety level. And the bulldozer driver needed to be extra-vigilant. Neither of these requirements was met.

As the result of an HSE investigation, two hearings took place (3 and a half years after the event) at Chelmsford Crown Court. At the first, Stephen Blackmore was sentenced to six months in prison – but this was suspended for 12 months – and he has to pay £2,500 in costs. At the second hearing, J McArdle Contracts Ltd received a nominal fine of £2,000. The firm is in liquidation so it is pointless awarding a larger amount: the judge in charge of the hearing said that £200,000 would have been the fine if the company had still existed.

As the Inspector commented, risk re-assessment is as important as the initial assessment in maintaining safety – what seems a trivial change in the situation may actually be critical.

You can find a guide to on-site vehicle construction safety here. While around the country, you can find practical on-site advice on implementing your ever-changing method statements as the contract progresses, by engaging the reasonably-priced services of specialist building safety consultants from McCormack Benson Health & Safety.