The accident happened at a Volvo Truck and Bus Centre depot in Enfield, north London on 17 September 2015. The technician was servicing a lorry owned by delivery firm DHL when he identified that the access rope to the back of the vehicle was broken and needed to be replaced.
The rope was approximately 3.5 m off the ground and he fetched a stepladder from the warehouse to carry out the repair.
At around 11am other workers on the site heard a loud crash. They found the repair technician unconscious, lying face down on the ground with the closed stepladder by his legs.
“There were no eyewitnesses so we’re not sure exactly what happened," said Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Nicholas Wright, "but we can speculate that the ladder slipped and he hit his head on the truck bed.”
The worker was in a medically induced coma for two weeks and had to remain in hospital for a further three weeks. He still suffers from ongoing complications and has been unable to return to work.
Volvo reported the accident to the HSE. Wright visited the depot three weeks later and found that the company had put the stepladder, which, he said, was in a poor condition, in quarantine: “One of the anti-slip rubber feet was missing and another was worn. It was unfit for use.”
The ladder the worker was using was not Volvo property (it is not known who brought it on site) and had not been maintained or checked to ensure it was suitable for use.
Around 30 technicians worked at the Enfield depot, maintaining, servicing and repairing vehicles. They regularly carried out work at height, including replacing mirror glass, repairing tears on curtainsider vehicles and changing lightbulbs, and there was a variety of access equipment on site.
However, the HSE found that Volvo had not trained its staff to select, inspect and use access equipment for height work. It also found there were no effective arrangements in place to maintain the equipment in good condition, or to detect deterioration.
The access equipment in the workshop had not been inspected for over a year, despite an internal health and safety audit which reported the non-compliance seven months prior to the incident.
Wright said that there were corporate risk assessments for work at height, however local management at the depot were not aware of their contents.
He served Volvo with a notice of contravention outlining the failures he found during the site inspection but said further enforcement action was not required because the company had already started towards fixing its failings before the HSE visit.
Volvo introduced an inspection programme for all the access equipment. The programme identified other defective or non-compliant equipment, which was later destroyed. It also implemented work at height training for its technicians.
Volvo Group UK, which manufactures trucks, buses and construction plant, pleaded guilty to breaching s 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act.
The case was heard at Westminster Magistrates’ Court by District Judge Purdy, who determined that the company’s culpability was medium, harm category 2 – since seriousness of harm risked was level B with a high likelihood. The starting point for the fine was £600,000 and the judge took into account Volvo’s early guilty plea and mitigation, and gave full credit for its good health and safety record. However, he also took account of Volvo’s significant turnover and moved outside the category range for a large organisation.
He fined the company £900,000, ordered it to pay costs of £5,820, and dismissed its application for 28 days to pay the fine, stating that it was a criminal penalty, “not some inconvenient invoice”.
Wright said: “This case is not about banning ladders; on many occasions they are the right equipment to use when working at height. It is about companies ensuring they properly maintain their work at height equipment and train their workers on how to inspect the correct tools for the job. As this case shows, even a fall from a relatively small height can have devastating consequences.”