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MAJOR RETAILER FAILED TO CHECK COMPETENCE

Prosecution follows death arising from unsafe roofwork system of work

Comet Group plc has been ordered to pay almost £100k in fines and prosecution costs following the death of a contractor, in June 2007, at the company store in Wrexham, North Wales. 

Paul Alker, aged 33, was working for a roofing contractor and was on the roof when he stepped on a rooflight and fell some 8m to the store floor. Precautions had not been taken to prevent a fall through the rooflight nor was Mr Alker using fall arrest equipment.

He suffered multiple injuries including rib fractures, a broken collar bone and soft tissue injuries which led to a fatal pulmonary embolism.

Comet failed to check competence and system

Following the hearing, HSE inspector Debbie John said: 

“Comet failed to ensure that its contractor had taken steps to prevent falls through the fragile roof lights, ultimately leading to the death of a worker. This incident could have been avoided if the roof lights at the Wrexham store had been protected and Mr Alker had been provided with appropriate safety equipment.

The law is clear: companies must ensure contractors are competent to do the work they are hired to do, and they need to understand their responsibilities. 

A safe system of work must be agreed and the company should monitor contractors to make sure they undertake work safely as agreed. My thoughts are with the family at this difficult time.”

Prison sentence for employer of deceased 

The employer, Steven Christopher Smith, director of Wrexham Roof Services Ltd was jailed for two and a half years in November 2007 in relation to this incident.

He pleaded guilty to gross negligence manslaughter, an offence under the HSW Act 1974 and a further charge of committing acts intending to pervert the course of justice.

See Press Report

Comment

This death occurred before the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Manslaughter Act (CMCH Act 2007) came into force.

Prior to 6 April 2008 a corporate entity could be prosecuted for a wide range of criminal offences, including the common law offence of gross negligence manslaughter. However, in order for the company to be guilty of the offence, it was also necessary for a senior individual who could be said to embody the company (also known as a ‘controlling mind’) to be guilty of the offence.

The CMCH Act 2007 offence created new accoutability for very serious management failings across an organisation. The offence is now considerably wider in scope and now includes liability for organisations which could never previously be prosecuted for manslaughter. 

Corporate clients for construction work are therefore now far more likely to face a manslaughter investigation where contractor is fatally injured.

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