An Exeter-based water treatment firm has been fined £1.8 million after a lone worker drowned at one of its plants. The catchment operator had been carrying out a routine maintenance task when he slipped and fell into a 6.5ft-deep water tank. The company admitted failing to identify the risks posed to lone workers and pleaded guilty to breaching section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
On 30 December 2013 the individual had been working alone at a Cornwall water treatment facility. He was trying to unblock a sand filtration filter when he fell through a narrow opening into the unit itself. There was no means of escape. The company did, however, have a lone-worker call-in system in place. This emergency feature would automatically contact workers after a period of inactivity. If they were unresponsive, the system would send an alarm message to an Exeter control centre. Unfortunately, the system was not fit for purpose. It had registered there could be an issue as early as 16:53, yet a colleague was not dispatched to investigate until shortly before discovery of the deceased at 19:50. Despite activating the emergency system, the individual had ultimately remained in the tank without assistance for four and a half hours.
Truro Crown Court held that a proper assessment covering lone-working procedures had not been carried out. The company had failed to identify the risk of drowning, which could have been prevented by proper planning and the adoption of simple preventative measures. In addition, it was found that the firm had failed to heed previous warnings: in 2009, the HSE had raised concerns about railing heights, trip hazards, and working alone.
The company is reported to have an annual turnover in excess of £500 million. It has no previous health and safety convictions and has since made changes to its lone working procedures.