A paper mill firm in Ivybridge whose employee was crushed to death as he tried to unclog a cylinder with a “piece of ’Mickey Mouse’ equipment” has been ordered to pay £260,000 in fines and costs.
Arjowiggins Ivybridge Ltd admitted it had breached health and safety duties after father-of-two Richard Zebedee was pulled into the machine as it operated at full speed in April 2009.
Plymouth Crown Court heard Mr Zebedee had only begun working in his new role as a “dryer man” at the mill a fortnight earlier, when he made his way through a safety gate and began prodding the rotating cylinder with a blade attached to a broom handle.
The company said it was not previously aware such a makeshift device existed, and has “an excellent safety record”. But it admitted it had “failed” in some aspects of preventing danger to employees.
The court heard there had been significant production problems on the day of the incident before Mr Zebedee started his shift in the drier area of the mill, with paper breaks and waste material affecting the process.
At one stage in production, Mr Zebedee gained access to the large rollers by opening a gate, which had an unlocked padlock, and used a long-handled tool to clear waste material, known as “broke”. At the time, the rollers were running at production speed of 131 metres a minute.
Mr Zebedee was drawn into the rollers and suffered severe crush injuries. Despite the efforts of fellow workers to free him and administer first aid, he showed no signs of life.
HSE found significant failings by the company in guarding the rollers and in the amount of training given to Mr Zebedee. The padlock on the gate was often left unlocked and staff had reported it to management.
In addition, although he had worked at the mill for a year-and-a-half, Mr Zebedee had only started work as a drierman a fortnight before the incident. He had taken part in training after his eight-hour shifts but several items on his training log had not been signed-off.
The investigation also found other staff had been working inside areas of the machine which should not have been accessed.
Speaking after the hearing, Mr Zebedee’s widow, Sarah Zebedee, said:
“Words cannot describe the gap left in our lives by Richard’s death. He loved his family and had taken on this job so he could spend more time with his girls. He was much-loved by family, friends and his colleagues. His untimely death has left us all devastated.
“Today’s court decision can never bring back Richard but does give us a sense of justice. We hope that this HSE prosecution has given Arjo Wiggins food for thought and that they make sure this can never happen again.”
HSE Inspector, Jo Fitzgerald, said:
“Mr Zebedee lost his life in a tragic incident that could have been prevented if basic safety measures had been put in place by the company.
“Fast moving machinery is a well-known hazard and must be properly guarded. Staff must also been given a full level of training when they are expected to work with potentially dangerous machinery.
“In too many companies unsafe practices are tolerated, even if they are not condoned. Managers must take an honest look at how things are done in reality and involve their workforce in identifying problems and improvements.”
Judge Paul Darlow said: “It seems to me that the risk of injury, and death in Mr Zebedee’s case, was clearly foreseeable.
“What seems to be less appreciated by the management was the culture that the operators spoke of (with regards to safety).”
Prashant Popat, for Arjowiggins, said: "The company wants to set out its sorrow and regret for this tragic loss of one of its employees."
He said it was not foreseen that someone in Mr Zebedee's position would gain access to the part of the machine where the accident happened.
Mr Popat added that employees were told not to enter the area while the machine was running. He added shift managers were not aware of the makeshift tool used by Mr Zebedee and others.
Mr Popat said the company had a good safety record and added more than half a million pounds had been spent on improving the infrastructure.
The company proposes to close the mill, where just over 100 people work, in 2014.