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BY-PASSED MOBILE PLANT SAFETY SWITCH CLAIMS LIFE

Plant operator became entangled in rotating tarmac cutter wheel 

South and West Highways Trenching (Direct Plant Services Ltd) has been fined after a workman died whilst operating a tarmac cutter in Wiltshire. Stuart Guard, aged 28, died after becoming entangled in the cutting wheel of the machine designed to remove the top layers of tarmac on roads.

Swindon Crown Court heard (26 April) that Stuart Guard, 28, was sent to the site to prepare trenches for new gas pipes. On 30 July 2009 he was driving the trenching machine with a top cutter attachment. He completed the trench And dismounted from the cab whilst the cutting wheel was still raised and rotating. He became entangled in the wheel, suffering fatal injuries.

The court heard that a safety switch beneath the operator’s seat had been deliberately disabled. The switch is designed to stop the engine and the cutting wheel when the seat is vacated.  HSE investigators found:

  • safety switches on all three top cutters owned by the firm had been bypassed; and
  • checking the picks was a two-man job but the machines were routinely hired out with one worker.

Checking the picks by a sole operator was quicker if the worker could leave his seat and observe the slowly rotating raised wheel.

Dangerous shortcuts in attitude to safety

South and West Highways Trenching of Portishead pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and three breaches of Regulation 11 of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 in relation to the incident. The company was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay £56,890 in costs.

Speaking after the prosecution, HSE inspector Helena Tinton said:

“South and West Highways Trenching paid scant regard to the welfare of its employees and took dangerous shortcuts in its attitude toward safety. The company’s safety failings had disastrous consequences for Mr Guard.

The law clearly states that employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their employees, which includes ensuring machinery and systems of work are safe.

The top cutter is a powerful machine, designed to cut through tarmac. They are fitted with safety switches for a very good reason – to prevent operators getting too close to rotating cutting wheels. Sending any of the three company machines to sites with one operator and with the safety switches deliberately bypassed puts workers at risk of serious injury or death while trying to check the picks”

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