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News added on 18.05.2017

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Confined spaces

Worker buried alive in unsupported trench

A Scottish construction firm has been fined after one of its workers suffered major crush injuries when the trench in which he was working collapsed. How could this nearly fatal incident have been avoided?

Wallace Roofing and Building Ltd has been fined after one of its workers suffered serious crush injuries when an unsupported wall of the trench in which he was working collapsed in on him.

The company had been engaged to renovate a house. As part of the project, an excavator was digging a trench to extend the drainage system. The excavator was being used to dislodge a boulder that was stuck in the trench, and Wallace Roofing employee Julian Kilbane, who was in the trench to lay the new pipes, was guiding the excavator when a nine-foot deep wall collapsed and buried him. Fortunately, his colleagues managed to dig the soil away from his face so that he could breathe until the emergency services extracted him. However, he had to stay in hospital for nearly three weeks after sustaining a broken shoulder, collarbone and ribs and punctures to both lungs. He has suffered permanent damage to his lungs as a result of the incident, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The HSE's investigation found that the trench had not been supported or stepped to control the risk of collapse. The work in an excavated trench had not been risk assessed and there were no measures in place to control the well-known risks of working within a trench. None of the company's employees had any health and safety training on how to manage a construction site, and there was no safe system of work in place, with workers receiving their instructions via verbal briefings instead.

The company pleaded guilty to breaching its duties to ensure the health and safety of its workers (ss.2, 33 Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974), and was fined £14,000.  

As well as the usual risks of the work task being carried out within the confined space, the employer must control the risks posed by the space itself, such as it collapsing or the worker becoming trapped. Any work in a confined space must be carefully risk assessed and planned, including devising a written safe system of work if necessary, and ensuring that everyone knows what to do in an emergency.

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