An anglers association has been ordered to pay a £66,000 fine after admitting breaching health and safety laws that led to the death of one of its volunteers.
On 9 October 2019, a group of volunteers from the Birmingham Angler’s Association (BAA) were carrying out routine fisheries maintenance working, cutting back and clearing vegetation along the riverbank near Pershore, Worcestershire. As fallen branches were being cleared with the use of a chain saw, Maurice Taylor, a member of the party, was hit on the head by a thick falling branch.
Mr Taylor was treated at the scene and then taken by air ambulance to University Hospital, Coventry having suffered a traumatic brain injury. A week later, when it was clear he would not recover, Mr Taylor’s family made the decision to turn off his life support.
An investigation by Worcestershire Regulatory Services (WRS) – on behalf of Wychavon District Council – found that the group of volunteers had received no formal health and safety instruction, had not been properly trained for the kind of work they were carrying out, and were using inadequate equipment.
No documented risk assessment was carried out, against the BAA’s own policy; guidance from The Angling Trust had been ignored; and a proper exclusion zone around the felling site had also not been set-up.
'This was not like a typical workplace accident investigation – we were dealing with mainly retired gentlemen who all go fishing together'
Speaking to IOSH magazine, WRS senior technical officer Nick Fowler GradIOSH, who led the investigation, said: 'The group was clearing the fishing platforms and strimming the riverbanks. Among the party there were several members who operated chainsaws if needed.
'They decided to remove some of the larger branches from a path linking some fishing platforms and it was during that operation that Mr Taylor – who wasn’t operating a chainsaw but had been working nearby – was struck on the head by a falling branch.'
Aside from the tragic nature of the case, the status of the working party, activity undertaken and location meant it was not straightforward to identify which agency – the local authority or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – was responsible for enforcement.
'It was a slightly unusual investigation in that there was some uncertainty as to the volunteer or employee status of Mr Taylor. It was important to establish that to inform the legislation that we needed to work to. The company [BAA] pleaded guilty to a section 3(1) offences – in other words, Mr Taylor was eventually classed as a non-employee,' Nick said.
'The other thing that slightly complicated things was that the volunteers were peripatetic workers on what was ostensibly farmland. In terms of enforcing authority remit and not operating ultra vires, there was a bit of a question mark about whether it was us or HSE that was responsible,' he told IOSH magazine.
'In the end it was decided by main activity and the fact that the group was affiliated to a recreational leisure activity. This despite the fact that they were carrying out work including forestry activities, which in many scenarios would come under the HSE’s remit. Therefore the subsequent insight provided by our specialist arboricultural consultant was invaluable.'
'So it took a bit of head scratching to get right. If it did go to a prosecution, we didn’t want the case compromised or thrown out because of questions raised as to jurisdiction.'
At a hearing On April 28 2021 at Worcester Magistrates’ Court, BAA admitted breaching the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations and section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act, for failing to ensure the safety of those not in its employment. The organisation was fined £66,000, and ordered to pay costs of £17,500 plus a victim surcharge of £181.
In summing up, the District Judge pointed out that in response to the incident, the BAA had suspended volunteer work and advertised for a paid fisheries officer, which was a reflection of what the organisation should have been doing prior to the accident. The Judge said the BAA’s health and safety procedures were out of date and volunteers were not properly trained.
'This incident also highlights an important message: don’t think relying on the goodwill of volunteers is an alternative to having proper training and procedures in place'
Nick said: 'This was not like a typical workplace accident investigation – we were dealing with mainly retired gentlemen who all go fishing together and were supporting the club by making the most of their time clearing these areas where they have fishing rights.
'We were also mindful of Mr Taylor’s family throughout the investigation – after the tragedy of losing their loved one, we hoped the verdict would provide some degree of closure.'
'But this incident also highlights an important message: don’t think relying on the goodwill of volunteers is an alternative to having proper training and procedures in place. Where you need salaried officers – whether it’s a health and safety officer or an external contractor to undertake potentially dangerous activities – do not accept shortcuts just because you are working with volunteers.'
Last year, an expectant mother was seriously injured after a tree branch smashed into her moving vehicle, leading to the death of her baby. The council responsible had not inspected the tree for 13 years. It was fined £100,000.