Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions Ltd (BBUS) has been fined £500,000 after hundreds of its workers were found to have been exposed to the risk of developing hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) over a period of nine years.
At Sheffield Crown Court, the company was also found guilty of a ‘systematic’ failure to report suspected cases of the debilitating and permanent condition under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR).
Speaking to Safety Management after the case was sentenced, investigating HSE inspector Christine Mellor said that failures had persisted between 2002 and 2011 and were only detected after ex-employees moved on to a new firm where it was reported they had HAVS.
“That company assessed the health of these individuals and submitted RIDDOR reports to HSE. During HSE’s investigation it was identified they had, only months earlier, worked for Balfour Beatty.”
HSE found serious failures in the company’s approach to risk assessment and health surveillance in its investigations after interviewing employees at sites including at Manchester, Penrith, Newcastle, Leeds, Rotherham and South Wales.
BBUS provides construction services to utility providers. Its workforce operate transiently, mostly on roadways, in groups of two to seven workers.
HSE found such workers were regularly exposed to hand-arm vibration (HAV) while operating hand-held power tools. “Workers typically used floor cutters, cut off saws, compactor plates, rammers or jackhammers. They used these to gain access to underground services for the purpose of repairing or upgrading existing services.”
Annual health surveillance was not provided for those most at risk and what health surveillance BBUS did have in place, the results were ‘not used effectively to identify where they were successfully controlling the risk from HAV and where they were not,’ said Mellor.
“They hadn’t consistently used risk assessments to identify who was exposed to high vibration or to identify how vibration exposures varied across teams.”
The firm relied ‘heavily’ on job rotation to control exposure to HAV. “But there was no system in place to ensure that the job rotation was minimising exposure as planned.”
“They weren’t ensuring that their supervisors understood it, the men understood the importance of it and that they implemented it,” she said.
Further, BBUS revealed to inspectors it had 97 cases of HAVS on its books. These cases had been diagnosed by doctors between 2007 and 2011, but because BBUS had never assessed whether they met the criteria for reporting set out under RIDDOR, HSE wasn’t able to assess how many cases should have been reportable.
“Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions’ systematic failure over several years to report to the authorities was not identified and corrected. Had it been then each individually diagnosed case would have been reviewed against the requirement to report set out in the original 1995 regulations in place at the time,” she said.
Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions Ltd of Chapeltown, Sheffield was fined £500,000 for breaching section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and for breaching the RIDDOR Regulations 1995. The company was ordered to pay costs of £195,000.
Contacted by Safety Management Balfour Beatty said: “The shortcomings in processes identified in this case took place many years ago and were addressed prior to the start of the investigation by HSE.
The judge acknowledged both this and that there was no evidence of anyone coming to harm as a result.”
In the statement, made by Heather Bryant, health safety environment & sustainability director at Balfour Beatty, it added: “Last year we launched the Balfour Beatty Zero by 2020 HAVS programme to design out and eliminate new cases of HAVS by 2020.
“As the first contractor to launch such a programme, specific initiatives include working with our Zero Harm Supply Chain Forum to identify best practice and push boundaries, increased use of robotics, and phasing out of tasks that cause vibration.”
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