Swiss food multinational Nestlé has been fined £640,000 after an employee was pulled through a gap on a production line.
On 13 February 2016, a technical operator was monitoring a conveyor belt used in the manufacture of After Eight mints at the firm’s factory in Halifax, west Yorkshire. He was holding an emery cloth and placed his hand close to a gap in the machine housing. The cloth was dragged into the machine, taking his arm with it.
The employee was unable to reach any of the emergency stop buttons located around the machine from the position in which he was trapped. A colleague heard him call out but could not see him until he walked towards the line. He then hit an e-stop.
Bradford Crown Court was told the injured worker, who had worked for the firm for three years, was released by paramedics. He suffered a double compound fracture of his right ulna and radius and underwent surgery and the fractures were reduced with pins and plates. He returned to work after four months. Almost four years after the accident he continues to suffer from residual weakness in his right arm, which is heavily scarred. He has to cover his arm in the summer as the skin is delicate and the scars burn and blister.
'Failure to guard the relevant parts exposed other employees to the same risk of harm and the failure to guard was a significant cause of the actual harm'
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigators found that Nestlé had failed to prevent access to dangerous moving parts of the machine, namely an ‘in-running nip’. The gap was large enough to allow access at the belt conveyor entry.
Nestlé UK admitted breaching regulation 11 of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations. In considering the level of fine, the judge assessed the culpability and likelihood of harm as medium. For a large organisation such as Nestlé, this meant the starting point for the fine would be £300,000 with a range of £130,000 to £750,000.
'Failure to guard the relevant parts exposed other employees to the same risk of harm and the failure to guard was a significant cause of the actual harm,' HSE inspector Jackie Ferguson explained to IOSH magazine.
With an annual turnover of approximately £1.6 billion, Nestlé is considered a very large organisation within the meaning of the Sentencing Guideline. Therefore the judge applied a significant uplift to £500,000 to reflect this.
A previous conviction in which a worker was killed at the same factory after a colleague re-started a conveyor-type machine known as a 'depalletiser' was an aggravating feature, so the judge considered the appropriate fine to be £1 million.
In mitigation, Nestlé fitted a fixed guard where the gap was and identified the same issue on four other machines which it also guarded retrospectively. The court was told that employees are, in general terms, trained to a high standard, and the company reported the matter properly to the authorities and co-operated in the investigation.
Therefore in his judgment, the appropriate fine, before considering the issue of credit for plea, was £800,000.
However, the company was not entitled a discount of a third which would normally be afforded for a guilty plea at the first opportunity. It was given a 20% credit for the guilty plea, making the fine £640,000. The company was also ordered to pay full costs of £26,234.
Describing the incident as a tragic incident that could so easily have been avoided, Jackie added: 'The risks inherent in failures to properly guard dangerous parts of machinery are well known in industry and to Nestlé.'