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UPDATED: London council fined £500k after worker sawed leg to the bone

The London Borough of Havering has been fined £500,000 after a road maintenance worker sliced his leg to the bone while he was pruning trees with a cut-off saw. The council is one of the first public bodies to be fined under the new sentencing guidelines for health and safety offences that came into force in February.

London council fined £500k after worker sawed leg to the bone
©Jeff Blackler/REX/Shutterstock

Southwark Crown Court heard that George Ball, 58, who was a roadworker for the council, was clearing a blocked drain in a residential street in Romford on 2 March 2015 and needed to cut back trees above the ditch containing the drain.

Ball was using a hand-held petrol-driven Stihl cut-off saw with a rotary blade to lop branches when the blade jammed in the wood. As he pulled it free, the blade glanced across the upper part of the his left leg cutting through to the bone. He needed surgery and 60 stitches, and also sustained muscle and ligament damage.

HSE inspector Samantha Gillatt told IOSH Magazine the cut-off saw was part of the council team’s equipment, usually used for cutting concrete. The blade Ball used had been purchased by a council manager and had been used once before to lop trees.

“The rotary blade was one that you would usually find in a woodworking shop for cutting pieces of timber. So it should only be used in a cross-cut saw or similar,” said Gillatt. She added that though the council had a risk assessment for the saw’s use it did not cover cutting branches. “It was a generic Stihl saw risk assessment,” said Gillatt.

London Borough of Havering Council pleaded guilty to breaching Regulations 4(2) and 4(3) of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations, which covers selecting work equipment and ensuring it is only used for operations for which it is suitable.

In court Vivek D’Cruz, prosecuting, was quoted as saying: “Mr Ball had never read or been directed to the manuals for the equipment he used in his job, including the cut-off saw that caused him such a serious injury that day. Nor did he know where such manuals were kept. 

The judge set the council’s culpability as medium because there were clear warnings in the Stihl saw’s manual about the risks of using incorrect blades. The judge said he put more emphasis on the potential harm risked than the actual harm caused. He set the likelihood of injury as high and the potential for injury as level A. (“That blade, if it had come down on his neck could have caused a fatality and the Stihl saw manual warned about that,” Gillatt noted). This combination of likelihood and potential harm - in lieu of the actual harm – placed the offence in Category 1 in the guidelines.

The authority’s turnover was assessed by reference to its annual budget – just under £159m for 2016-17 – which made it a large organisation for sentencing purposes. The starting point for the fine was £1.3 million and the range was from £800,000 and £3.25 million. The judge noted Ball’s injury, the actual harm from the failing, was an aggravating factor in the case, but in setting the penalty at £500,000 he allowed for the fact that Havering had pleaded guilty at the first opportunity and that a high penalty could lead to cuts in the local authority’s services.

The fine is one of the first to be imposed on a local authority since the new sentencing guidelines for health and safety offences were introduced earlier this year. The council must also pay prosecution costs of £8,240. Havering is said to be considering an appeal against the penalty because it believes it is too high.


Keeley Downey was the former assistant editor of IOSH Magazine. Previously she was editor of Biofuels International, Bioenergy Insight and Tank Cleaning Magazine


  • How suitably appropriate is

    Permalink Submitted by Bernard Angus CMIOSH MIIRSM on 13 July 2016 - 02:33 pm

    How suitably appropriate is the fine and how arrogant is the Council to think it should appeal.
    Grounds maintenance work can be dangerous and all tasks should be risk assessed in co-operation with the equipment users. The new Sentencing Guidelines were announced last November with much fanfare. It is time that such errant employers realised their responsibilities and considered the welfare of their workers.

  • Although it has been stated

    Permalink Submitted by Precious Bembridge on 13 July 2016 - 11:14 pm

    Although it has been stated clearly that the council failed to provide training to the employee, nor did they put in place safe symptom of work or risk assessment. According to the same Act the employee has the responsibility to care of his Health and Safety as far as reasonable practicable. How can someone beginning driving a car without a driving instructor? If he was not sure of the technical know he could asked questions and wait for answers. I am very sorry the harm that this has caused but this is a preventable and avoidable risk due employee careless as well as the organisation non-compliances to Health and Safety. The council should be fined more than the fined amount for failing to provide him training.

  • Are Councils getting such

    Permalink Submitted by Dr Andrew Shaun Dent on 15 July 2016 - 09:02 pm

    Are Councils getting such short manned they cannot keep up with the sites they should be visiting? Its not good when the councils are running out of budget and peoples lives get put at risk.

  • I wonder how many senior

    Permalink Submitted by TDSafety on 20 July 2016 - 01:09 pm

    I wonder how many senior managers will loose their jobs as a result. Probably none

  • It's unclear in this report

    Permalink Submitted by Terry Cecil on 20 July 2016 - 02:07 pm

    It's unclear in this report why the operative decided to use this piece of equipment for the job. Did he make the on the spot decision to cut the branches back and used the tool at hand without authorisation? It's unclear what the 58 year old experience was but its not uncommon for even experienced workers to take short cuts out in the field knowingly because they can't be supervised. How can the council control that other than checking on the workers compentancy?

  • Remember these fines are

    Permalink Submitted by Anonymous on 20 July 2016 - 09:50 pm

    Remember these fines are ultimately paid by you the tax payer. Larger fines mean less services. This does not however excuse the Council for poor health and safety practices. As a Council employee with thousands of jobs undertaken every year it is impossible to be on every site from start to finish to monitor safety practices. I don't know the specifics of this case but you cannot be responsible for everyone's negligent actions. Should we have to tell someone that equipment specifically designed for cutting concrete should not be used to cut tree branches? Was it foreseeable that an employee would come across over hanging branches in the course of his work? Individuals need to take responsibility for themselves as well as information instruction and training which was clearly lacking in this case. I come across many Contractors in my job - Councils generally have high standards of health and safety compared to those in the private sector. All Councils should not be tarred with the same brush.

  • I am puzzled how this council

    Permalink Submitted by Des Campbell on 21 July 2016 - 11:34 am

    I am puzzled how this council is asking staff to prune trees using such a tool. A chainsaw is the most appropriate tool, (or a hand held scrub cutter) used by a trained operator using the requisite PPE. There is something deeply wrong with their whole management processes & therefore competency for carrying out this kind of work .

  • The judge noted Ball’s injury

    Permalink Submitted by Richard Nichols on 25 July 2016 - 10:50 am

    The judge noted Ball’s injury, the actual harm from the failing, was an aggravating factor in the case, but in setting the penalty at £500,000 he allowed for the fact that Havering had pleaded guilty at the first opportunity and that a high penalty could lead to cuts in the local authority’s services. So half a million pounds will not have serious implications on a local authority? It is time that we look at this in a different way, maybe some of the fine could be used to fund health and safety training for staff.

  • This is a case of lack of

    Permalink Submitted by The Roadmender on 25 July 2016 - 11:42 am

    This is a case of lack of basic education on both the supervision and operative.All approved and recognised training courses will emphasis the fact ,that you cannot mount this sort of blade on a Stihl saw designed for cutting concrete and steel products.This is a case of not having a safe system of work in place and no information,training or supervision.Unbelievable that the local authorities direct labour force are still working this way.You would not get away with or find this sort of practise with privatised service providers,regardless of budgets and financial constraints.


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