World-renowned former steelwork specialist, Cleveland Bridge UK Ltd, has been fined £1.5 million by Teesside Crown Court following a case where an electrician fell more than 20 feet to his death from a gantry crane.
On 25 October 2016, Keith Poppleton had been repairing a short circuit on a large overhead gantry crane at Cleveland Bridge’s site in Yarm Road, Darlington, when an access panel on the crane’s walkway flipped on its axis beneath his feet. The 54-year-old fell to the ground, sustaining fatal injuries and was pronounced dead at hospital.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the company had failed to maintain the crane walkway’s access panels. Cleveland Bridge was found guilty of breaching sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act, regulation 5(1) of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations, and regulation 8(b)(i) of the Work at Height Regulations. The company was fined £1.5 million and ordered to pay costs of £29,239.
We spoke to HSE investigator, Jonathan Wills about this tragic case.
‘Cleveland Bridge is a world-famous name. This company manufactured famous structures such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and more recently the arch over Wembley Stadium. The factory at Darlington was therefore built with that sort of scale in mind. Within it there were several huge overhead gantry cranes that had been installed in the mid-1980s when the factory was built,’ Jonathan said.
‘Included in the design of these cranes were steel mesh walkways, situated high up to allow access for maintenance activities and, originally, to gain access to a cab. The walkways themselves were suitably guarded to prevent a fall from the edge, however each crane also featured mesh access panels, clamped into the gantry floor. These panels were originally designed to be temporarily removed, so that access could be gained in order to maintain the light fittings beneath, which would have illuminated the floor below.
‘Over three decades these access panels had been removed and replaced, without Cleveland Bridge having a system in place to ensure that they were put back in the way in which the manufacturer had intended,’ Jonathan said.
‘This complex investigation included the recovery the original manufacturer’s plans for the crane in question from 1984, which clearly identified that each access panel should have been clamped to the gantry with 4 separate ‘clips’ to keep the panels in place. Simple tools would have been sufficient to have tightened these clips and secured the panels.’
‘Due to the lack of a safe system being in place, clips went missing, unnoticed. It got to the stage that, on the day of Keith’s death, the panel in question only incorporated one clip, which was clearly not tightened. We also found that on the same gantry, two other access panels were in a similar state of affairs.’
Cleveland Bridge – which went into administration in July 2021, owing creditors nearly £22 million – put forward the idea at inquest that the gangway was designed to be ‘maintenance free’, so they had no reason to make sure it was maintained correctly.
‘That was true to some extent, but definitely not in relation to the access panels, which were periodically being removed and replaced,’ Jonathan said.
‘It was quite clear that the panels hadn’t been maintained in the way in which the manufacture has intended, which was either with the clamps or with the access panels welded in place.’
‘In the course of our investigation, we identified that work had been carried out on the gantry several months earlier to install LED lighting, through the hole that had been created by removing the access panel involved in the incident. There had been no planning or organising as to how this work should have been carried out safely by the company to prevent those workers falling through the leading edge. Nor were there any instructions or training to inform those workers on the need to replace the access panel properly.’
Jonathan says the conclusions to this case are sadly obvious, and the fine should serve as a warning to other businesses, particularly when dealing with non-routine activities.
‘It’s clear and simple health and safety management, to be totally honest. It’s about identifying where there are risks when working at height especially, as it was in this case, when it comes to non-routine maintenance operations,’ Jonathan said.
‘This isn’t about the worker operating a machine day in, day out; it’s about identifying maintenance activities that are one-off jobs, or jobs that could bypass the health and safety management system. All of the tasks involving the removal and replacement of the access panels on this site, where there was a risk of a fall from height, should have been assessed and control measures put in place.
‘I hope that the £1.5 million fine sends a clear message to industry as to how seriously the courts view cases such as this, even when a company has gone into administration. Had the case not been put in front of the courts, then there would have been no public acknowledgement of the extent of the health and safety failings by such a world-renowned company, that led to Keith’s death and deprived his family of a husband, father and grandfather.
‘Hopefully, this case will remind owners of businesses and directors of companies to review their maintenance activities as well as their routine activities when it comes to assessing risks and putting controls in place.’
However, the £1.5 million fine is unlikely to be paid, administrators have said. The Darlington-based firm was wound down in 2021.
In a statement to IOSH magazine, an HSE spokesperson said of the six years it took to bring the case to court: ‘This was a complex investigation involving equipment which was installed in the mid-1980s, several substantial expert witness testimonials and significant analysis of physical evidence.
‘As was evident at the inquest, the company’s denial of any culpability required the HSE to invest considerable time and resource to gather substantive, irrefutable evidence in order to secure justice for Mr Poppleton’s family.’
The case raises the issue of imposing fines on companies who are found guilty of health and safety offences, but who are unlikely to be in any position to pay the financial penalty.
One significant case occurred in March last year when Drayton Manor Park Ltd was fined £1 million for failing in its duty of care to Evha Jannath, an 11-year-old school girl who died in May 2017 after being thrown from boat at Drayton Manor theme park’s Splash Canyon ride and who subsequently drowned.
Although Drayton Manor Park Ltd pleaded guilty, Mr Justice Spencer said when passing sentence that there was no prospect of the fine being paid since the company had gone into administration. The family-owned company ran into financial problems and was sold in August 2020; the new owners – Looping Group – took the business and assets only, not responsibility for any liabilities.