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Huge fine for water company death

Katie Coyne03/05/2017 - 14:39

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Google credit.    Water plant where the accident happened
Google credit. Water plant where the accident happened

South West Water has been fined £1.8m and ordered to pay costs of almost £42,000 following the death of one of its workers.

Robert Geach, 54, was found on 30 December 2013, by a colleague, drowned in a sand filtration unit at the Falmouth Waste Water Treatment Works.

Mr Geach was undertaking maintenance work at the Cornish site and was last seen alive working on top of the unit around 3pm before being found several hours later.

The company’s lone worker system promoted a colleague to go and check on Mr Geach, but there were concerns about the system which has since been replaced.

An HSE investigation found the company failed to identify the risk of drowning with the maintenance activity undertaken by Mr Geach and his colleagues on a regular basis.

At Truro Crown Court, South West Water of Peninsula House, Rydon Lane, Exeter pleaded guilty of breaching Section 2 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. It was fined £1.8million and ordered to pay costs of £41,607.71.

HSE inspector Georgina Speake said: ‘This tragic case could have been prevented if the company had reduced the size of the hatch used to access the sand filters, and properly considered the hazards of the operation, including how close Mr Geach was to the water.

‘Mr Geach was exposed to the risk of drowning which could have been easily been controlled if the task had been properly planned and simple measures adopted earlier which South West Water failed to do so adequately.’

The Falmouth Packet reported that an inquest, held in 2015, into Mr Geach’s death found that the death could have been avoided if steps had been taken to remedy issues around the tanks. It also said that people higher up the company were aware of the issues.

It said that concerns were also raised at the inquest around the lone worker system as it involved an automated system with an operative ID and pin number that would try and contact a lone worker before raising an alarm with a call centre. But this meant Mr Geach was found three hours after the alarm had been raised and after three failed attempts to reach him on his mobile phone. 

Mr Geach was unblocking a sand filter whereby he had to remove metal grating and operating valves positioned above the water in the tank.

The gratings are now screwed down and smaller ‘cat flap’ hatches have been installed and workers have since been given personal alarms.

Mr Geach's widow, Sylvia, told the Falmouth Packet: ‘The last three years have been a difficult time for our family. We are pleased, however, that concerns we had around lone working and health and safety have been acknowledged by the court.

‘Although too late for Rob, changes to working practices and the lone working system have been made. We would like to thank the police, the GMB and the Health and Safety Executive for their kindness and support throughout this time.’

Stephen Bird, South West Water managing director, said: ‘The death of Robert Geach in December 2013 was a tragedy. Robert was a valued colleague and we very much regret the devastating loss to his family and friends.

‘South West Water takes its health and safety responsibilities very seriously, and has co-operated fully with the investigation by the Health and Safety Executive, as was acknowledged in court.

‘South West Water has tried to ensure it learns all that it can from this incident and will continue to strive to meet the highest standards of health and safety.

‘As was said at the Inquest, a review of our health and safety arrangements was already underway at the time of Robert's death. 

‘Since then we have updated procedures and policies, carried out comprehensive staff training, and invested in new equipment and technologies, particularly to ensure the safety of staff who may be working alone. We believe our lone worker protection now sets the standard across the industry.’



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