Railway infrastructure contractor VolkerRail Ltd has been fined £550,000 after a trench collapsed onto a railway worker, causing life-changing injuries and resulting in him being placed in a medically-induced coma. We spoke to Simon Barber, HM Inspector of Railways at the Office of Road and Rail (ORR), about what happened.
'On 6 July 2014, a team of railway workers were involved in installing an undertrack crossing near Stafford railway station,' explained Simon.
'The purpose of an undertrack crossing is to send cabling and other services underneath the railway from one side of the track to the other. To do this, two chambers were needed to be placed in the ground either side of the tracks at a depth of approximately two metres, with ducts placed to connect these two chambers. Whilst the ducts were being connected, part of the two-metre [6.5ft] deep excavation collapsed, which unfortunately resulted in injuries to one member of the team working on the project.'
British Transport Police was the first investigating agency on the scene, with its officers taking the initial witness statements and conducting interviews with people on site at the time of the incident. The investigation was then handed over to the ORR.
'We took stock of the evidence we had received and identified potential lines of enquiry. We then took further witness statements from everyone involved in the planning and management of the works. Due to the number of people involved, we ended up taking a lot of statements to ensure we had a complete picture,' added Simon.
'Our investigation found that there were weaknesses in the method of work used to undertake the excavation, and that the collapse occurred due to a lack of support and insufficient groundwater management.
'Of note, whilst in many areas of health and safety the law requires what is ‘reasonably practicable’, in the CDM [ Construction (Design and Management)] Regulations, the requirement for dutyholders in relation to excavations is that ‘all practicable steps, shall be taken, where necessary to prevent danger to any person’. This is a higher test than ‘reasonably practicable’ and reflects the level of risk associated with this type of work.'
Causes of collapse
One element of this incident that became apparent, and which is all the more relevant in light of the legal requirements around excavations, is that there had already been concerns raised about the method of work before the trench collapsed.
'This was the third of three undertrack crossings that were being put in at this location. On the first one, there had been issues with groundwater. As a result of that, some trench supports had been brought to site. However, on the night of this incident, those trench supports hadn’t been used,' said Simon.
'The method of work being used here was to try to batter back the slope each side of the trench so that it wouldn’t need a trench support. In this case, that methodology had not been followed and the excavation had vertical walls.
'Because of the issues with groundwater, a pump was also being used to try to improve the situation, but this was not used to any design to ensure it was sufficient for the task. We would have expected more planning in this regard and, as a result, the method of work was not sufficiently detailed for the job.'
While the causes of the trench collapse were being investigated, the employee injured in the incident was facing an entirely different challenge. The trench collapse had resulted in him suffering a broken pelvis and several broken ribs. In hospital, he underwent surgery on his pelvis, stomach and lungs and was placed in an induced coma. Even now, eight years after the incident, he is still in pain and is no longer able to work full-time.
The decision to prosecute was taken in light of the ORR’s investigation that found VolkerRail had not used temporary works to shore up the excavation despite evidence of unstable ground conditions; had not adequately briefed its construction team on how to complete tasks and was not following its own methods; and poor management meant failings were not corrected and complaints were not fully acted upon.
'Concerns had been raised by workers about this work. Whilst VolkerRail had taken some action in response to these concerns, it did not take enough action to ensure that risk was managed,' noted Simon.
'Trench supports had been made available but no-one actually used them; groundwater had been identified as an issue that needed to be controlled, and whilst a pump was provided, this was not planned to a design to ensure it was sufficient for the location. Coming back to the legislation around excavations, the CDM Regulations require practicable measures, and both the installation of trench supports and the adequate control of groundwater would have been practicable measures at this location.'
VolkerRail Ltd pleaded guilty to an offence under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. At sentencing at Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court on 13 May 2022, His Honour Judge Smith fined the company £550,000 and also ordered it to pay costs of £85,415.
What lessons can IOSH members take?
'Excavations are a well-known area of risk and something that all IOSH members should be aware of. We know that workers can get seriously injured when working in or around excavations, so it is an area that needs to be tightly controlled. The gentleman who was involved in this incident was badly injured, but in other circumstances it could have been even worse,' Simon said.
'More generally, I think the incident highlights the importance of health and safety staff listening to any concerns raised and making sure they act on those concerns appropriately. It’s also important to empower people to be able to say: "This method of work isn’t safe; I’m not going to do the work". Ultimately, if something is not safe or somebody has doubts regarding the safety of work, everyone should feel they are able to speak up and have confidence that they will be listened to.'