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Directors imprisoned following confined spaces incident

The recent convictions and sentences in the well-publicised prosecution of Greenfeeds Ltd, its directors and employees illustrate the extreme consequences of failing to manage work in confined spaces.

The tragic deaths of two workers involved in cleaning tankers resulted in Greenfeeds Ltd receiving a seven-figure fine and senior managers received substantial custodial sentences and disqualification. While Greenfeeds had failed in fundamental aspects of its health and safety management, the facts of the case illustrate the consequences of a poor understanding of confined spaces risks and the importance of proper monitoring, supervision and planning of work.

In a six-week trial, the jury found that there was no safe method of work for cleaning the tanker. The only method implemented was to have one person entering the tank with a power washer while another acted as a spotter and held the hose pipe. There was no method statement for getting someone out of the tanker, despite there being no ladder inside to climb out, and no proper risk assessment in place. Employees received no training, no personal protective equipment and no warning of the risks. There was not even a basic record of when an employee entered a tanker to clean it. Staff had previously expressed concerns about the dangers of the cleaning method but had been ignored and there was no named health and safety officer at the company.

Similar challenges are common within the AD sector, which can involve work in tanks and other confined spaces, often at remote locations with multiple parties responsible for various operations at different times. The tragic events may serve as a reminder to review systems around confined spaces and, more fundamentally around competence and supervision of workers.

At a recent meeting of ADBA held at Ashford’s offices in Bristol, the HSE’s Lee Schilling indicated that a pro-active schedule of HSE inspections is planned for the AD sector this year, with a further series of inspections for agri-sector AD plants planned for next year.

There is an opportunity therefore for AD businesses to review their health and safety arrangements and explore opportunities for de-risking their operations including in relation to arrangements with landowners, feedstock providers and other contractors. Ashford’s Business Risk & Regulation team is experienced in assisting with reviews of this kind, including advice on arrangements for managing Directors’ individual exposure to prosecution, within proper frameworks for oversight and leadership.

Charges and findings

  • Greenfeeds Ltd pleaded guilty for failing to discharge their duties under section 2(1) Health and Safety at Work Act etc 1974 (“HSWA”) due to a failure to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of its employees. The company was also found guilty of two counts of corporate manslaughter and fined a total of £2million.
  • Gillian Leivers, who worked as the office and accounts manager and oversaw the day-to-day running of the site, was found guilty of two counts of gross negligence manslaughter. She was also found guilty of breach of section 2(1) HSWA by virtue of section 37(1) in that the offence by the company was committed with her consent or connivance of, or attributable to her neglect. She was sentenced to a total of 13 years imprisonment and disqualified for being a company director for a period of 15 years.
  • Ian Lievers, director of Greenfeeds Ltd, was also found guilty of breach of section 2(1) HSWA by virtue of section 37(1) of the Act. He was sentenced to 20 months imprisonment and disqualified from being a company director for a period of 10 years.
  • Stewart Brown, the firm’s transport manager, was found guilty under section 7(1) HSWA in that being an employee at work, he failed to take reasonable care for the health and safety of others who might be affected by his acts or omissions at work. He was also charged with two counts of gross negligence manslaughter but found not guilty of either count. He was sentenced to one year imprisonment suspended for two years.

Lessons to be learnt

Greenfeeds Ltd’s breaches were severe and their consequences fatal. Although the facts are extreme, they highlight the importance of getting the basics right for even the most routine of tasks. Tanks and tankers are part of everyday work in the waste and agricultural sector and it is essential that risk assessments are regularly reviewed.

Tankers are defined as a confined space by the Health and Safety Executive and related guidance/Approved Codes of Practice. It is therefore vital that workers are made aware of the risks and adequate risk assessments are carried out and appropriate training and equipment provided. The fatalities in this case involved young, relatively inexperienced workers and so guidance on competence and supervision is equally pertinent.

Greenfeeds Ltd failed to get the most fundamental aspects of health and safety law correct. However, the case is a reminder that cutting corners at the expense of health and safety compliance risks generating  far greater financial and reputational  consequences for parties involved, should an accident occur.  It is vital that directors and managers understand their duties and the risks, regulations, procedures and equipment pertaining to their area of work.

Where appropriate health and safety measures have been put in place and employees are fully trained on compliance with the relevant policies and procedures, breaches by employees should be treated seriously, and dealt with promptly using the business’ disciplinary or performance management procedures.  Inappropriate and dangerous behaviours must be stamped out immediately to avoid potential tragedies.

If you have any questions or would like any advice in relation to health and safety in your place of work, please contact Ben Derrington in our Business Risk & Regulation team. For advice on dealing with employment issues, please contact Su Apps in our Employment team. For more information on Anaerobic Digestion, please contact Jonathan Croley in our Energy & Resource Management team.

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