It’s the first prosecution HSE has taken where a worker has suffered injury from exposure to vibration. And, as is so often the case, it could and should have been avoided…
Martin Bennett had worked as a panel beater since 1988 with a major car dealership, repairing vehicles using a variety of hand-held power tools. Over recent years, while the number of employees working in the body shop fell, the amount of work to be done remained fairly constant, and Mr Bennett’s use of power tools rose from two or three hours a day to five, six or even more.
Under pressure from Mr Bennett, his employer, the Rochester Motor Company (part of the Robins and Day Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Peugeot), finally sent him for a medical examination (one of many) in 2001, where he was diagnosed with early stage vibration white finger (VWF). The medical report stated: ‘it is essential to prevent any further progression of his injury from stage 1 to stage 3’. But the body shop was being run down (the site was earmarked for closure) and, as his colleagues moved on, Mr Bennett’s workload grew. Two years later, his condition had indeed worsened.
Despite the medical warnings, the company required Mr Bennett to continue using vibrating hand tools’, explains David Fussell, an inspector from HSE’s Ashford office. ‘The company did have a risk assessment provided by health and safety contractors, but this appears to have been a generic document that was ‘topped and tailed’ accordingly for each of the company’s 34 dealerships. There was no evidence of the company informing its workers about the risk of injury from using hand-held vibrating tools or being aware of the relevant guidance.
And instead of using site-specific risk assessments to identify actual/likely exposure levels, the company simply reacted to staff reports of ill-health effects… and then failed to take action on what it found.’
Leo Beirne, a Principal Specialist Inspector, joined David on the investigation. By the time it got under way, the body shop had, unfortunately, closed down. However, they did manage to take possession of a number of hand tools, which Leo sent to the Health and Safety Laboratory’s (HSL) Noise and Vibration Section for testing. Sample assessments using their on-site measurements showed that Mr Bennett’s average daily usage was around double the recommended exposure set by HSE – and sometimes considerably higher.
‘Mr Bennett’s condition should never have been allowed to reach such a debilitating stage’, Leo comments. ‘The company had known since 2001 at least that his work was affecting his health, and what would happen if he continued to use power tools, but failed to take action. Mr Bennett has now had to give up vehicle repair work altogether.’
In August 2006, the company was fined £10 000 with £28 000 costs at Dartford Magistrate’s Court. ‘And it should have been more’, Leo adds. ‘VWF is reportable under RIDDOR. The company claimed to have faxed in a report, but couldn’t remember where they sent it, and didn’t have a receipt (neither our local office nor the Incident Contact Centre are aware of having received such a form). However, the defence QC was adamant that this still didn’t amount to non-reporting – a difficult point of law, and one for our legal team to sort out, I think!
All the same, this is an important case. Our prosecution sends a strong message to employers that we are prepared to prosecute over health issues. Bringing this prosecution was demanding on our time and resources but, with HSL’s expert back-up and plenty of persistence on the part of the local team, all the hard work paid off in the end.’